The Role of the Appellate Court and Specific Case Facts in Awarding General Damages

General damages are defined as those that involve mental or physical pain, inconvenience, loss of intellectual gratification or physical enjoyment, or other losses that can not be measured in monetary terms. In determining an award of general damages, the Louisiana Supreme Court advocates deference to the lower court, and intervention by an appellate court only in the case of clear abuse of discretion. In a recent case, a plaintiff filed a personal injury claim when she was struck in her car by another driver (the issue of sole liability was not appealed by that driver or her insurance company).

The trial court awarded $25,000 in general damages for injuries sustained by the plaintiff to her knees as a result of the accident. Although she also suffered a back and shoulder injury, she only sought damages for her knee injury, and the court considered evidence accordingly. The plaintiff argued the court erred in awarding too small a sum for general damages for her knee injuries, and for not awarding general damages for her back injury. The trial court’s decision was subsequently affirmed.

The primary medical information in this case was found in the testimony of the plaintiff’s long-time physician. He noted that although she was referred to therapy and diagnosed with a back sprain, she had other problems that did not relate to the accident. She was discharged from therapy because she did not attend sessions with any regularity, and had inconsistently reported that her knee pain was “bearable.” He further testified that the accident had aggravated arthritis in her knee and back, but that this was a pre-existing condition. Additionally, she had been on prescription medication for back pain long before the accident, had filed for Social Security Disability 13 years prior, and had even been involved in other automobile accidents both before and after the accident in question.

In considering cases where damages have been deemed too low upon appeal, such as in Youn v. Maritime Overseas Corp., the circumstances serve as a stark contrast to the present case. In that case, the plaintiff suffered mental pain over his grotesque disfigurement, his wife was “disgusted” by his injured leg, he was unable to fulfill his family responsibilities, and he was in constant jeopardy of any intrusion into his “paper thin” skin placing his life at risk. His condition was predicted to “never improve,” and to continue on a constantly downward course, including future expenses to undergo surgeries. He had a significant whole body impairment rating, and was in danger of blood clots and loss of circulation (especially given the climate in which he lived). The court had “never seen such a dismaying scene,” and took note of his sincerity in depicting his misfortune, and his appreciation for those who had saved his life.

Comparatively, the plaintiff in the present case demonstrated sporadic attendance and inconsistent complaints. Her therapists even noted that her symptoms fluctuated in location and type without any consistency. Similarly, in Keeth v. Dept. of Pub. Safety & Transp., even though the plaintiff suffered many types of injuries, was required to undergo surgery, suffered from stiffness, and had to forego certain hobbies, the court did not find an abuse of discretion.

The adequacy of an award is gauged according to the facts or circumstances particular to a case under consideration. However, the most indicative component to a decision is the underlying notion that vast discretion is accorded to a trier of fact in fixing these awards. As stated In Duncan v. Kansas City Southern Railway Co., if the trial court’s findings are reasonable, then the appellate court may not reverse, even if it is convinced it would have weighed the evidence differently sitting as the trier of fact. The role of the appellate court is not to decide what it considers to be an appropriate award, but to review the exercise of discretion by the lower court.

If you have been involved in a similar situation and need legal help to bring justice to the situation, contact the Berniard Law Firm at (504) 527-6225 where a qualified attorney will help walk you through your case.