Court Amends Damages, Allocation of Fault in Car Accident Appeal

In continuing the last post, an automobile accident took place where a variety of damages awarded to the plaintiff were mitigated by the allocation of fault. After the court of appeals reversed the allocation of fault and rendered that Mr. Artigue was 100% at fault, the court addressed four remaining assertions of error. Ms. Richard asserted that the jury committed manifest error in determining each of the four monetary values defined, arguing that the values were lower than the lowest reasonable value that could be determined by the facts at trial.

The jury’s determination of damages is a finding of fact, and much discretion is left to the jury (or judge in a bench trial where he or she is the trier of fact). Therefore, a trial court’s finding of fact cannot be reversed unless it is clearly wrong. i.e. that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding. The court of Appeals affirmed the loss of future wages, past wages, and general damages. However, the court held that the award for future medical expenses demonstrated manifest error and amended the judgment for future medical expenses
Ms. Richard also argued that the amount reached by the jury for future earnings was erroneous because it was below what either economist testified to as her future lost wages. However, both estimations assumed that she could not ever work again, and the facts show that Ms. Richard didn’t cease working until slightly over 2 years after the accident (when she was fired). Therefore, the jury could have reasonably found that Richard may return to work in the future.

Another reason the finding was not manifest error or clearly wrong is that facts presented at trial could lead to alternative inferences concerning causation. Psychiatric testimony at trial purported that Ms. Richard could not work again due to stress coupled with her pain from the accident. There was no dispute that the source of Richard’s pain is the accident. However, there was a question of fact as to whether the sole source of stress was attributable to the accident.

Richard admitted in testimony that her work had become stressful due to a transfer of ownership. Therefore, the jury could have reasonably found that at least part of the source of her stress that prevented her from working was the change of employer rather than the accident.

The reasonable finding that Ms. Richard’s stress was not solely caused by the accident also was important in upholding the award for past wages lost. Although she was fired two years after the wreck, she still is entitled to lost wages until the time of trial, if her termination was due to the accident causing her inability to work. However, the jury could reasonably conclude that stress was a major factor that caused Richard’s inability to work and, as previously stated, that her stress was not entirely caused by the accident. Thus, it could reasonably have found that the money provided was ample consideration.

This reliance on perception is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it seems that the jury is allowed to apportion percentage of harm or cause. The appellate court suggests that a reasonable jury could have determined the accident was a partial cause of termination and reduced damages to reflect that. Past wages lost is much less speculative than future earnings lost, and the reasonableness in finding for $10,000 when the only figure proffered at trial was over $40,000 suggests a doubt in causation.

As far as future medical expenses, the jury was presented with conflicting medical testimony. Given the differing opinion of what will probably be necessary and the rate medical costs are increasing, the jury was presented with four separate estimates: (1) $1,323,097.00; (2) $979,536.00; (3) $866,571.00; and (4) $637,888.00. Furthermore, only one expert testified that perhaps an alternate treatment may offer her some relief, and that language did suffice as medical probability (more probable than not) that is required.

In determining this award there was no room for unfounded speculation and the jury could not reasonably have chosen a value less than or higher than the range offered by expert testimony. Therefore, the court reversed the award for medical expenses as manifest error and assigned the lowest of the values given by experts at trial. This illustrates the importance of expert testimony. The jurors are not medical professionals and have no reasonable basis to determine such damages on their own. Thus, there is no reasonable basis to find damages beyond the parameters of the four expert opinions offered at trial.

The final asserted error concerns the general damages. The court has a problem articulating the standard to reverse an award for general damages, and there is good reason. Although an award seems too high or too low according to one’s own opinion, it is not the appellate court’s role to reverse on those grounds. Although the award seemed low for the seriousness of Ms. Richard’s injuries, the court did not find it abusively low.

From this appeal Ms. Richard’s damages were increased and she attained a favorable holding that required Mr. Artigue (more likely his employer and/or their insurance provider) pay 100% of those damages rather than a mere 60%. Effective and well-planned appellate litigation was essential in attaining this holding, and is in most appeals.

If you have recently been injured in an auto collision, contact the Berniard Law Firm. Providing experienced litigators, our firm is fully capable of successful trial and appellate litigation. Call the Berniard Law Firm at Toll-Free at 1-866-574-8005 today!