The American justice system places juries in charge of some fairly weighty decisions. However, juries are not the final arbiter of a plaintiff’s rights. There are several post-verdict motions that can be made at the trial level as well as an entire system of appellate courts to which a plaintiff can turn if a jury verdict fails to satisfy.
Sheila Martin, an adult woman incapable of caring for herself, brought suit through her parents against the driver of the vehicle that struck Ms. Martin’s mother’s vehicle, thereby injuring Ms. Martin. The driver, Bruce Walker, conceded liability but no settlement could be reached as to the appropriate amount of damages. Trial proceeded on the issue of damages alone. The jury determined that Ms. Martin was entitled to $25,96.58 for medical expenses, $6,500 for past physical pain and $500 for past mental anguish. No damages were awarded for any future expenses or suffering, most likely because a doctor who had treated Ms. Martin signed a form indicating that she was back to pre-accident status and would not require any future care.
The plaintiffs, however, were not completely pleased with this verdict. They felt it was inadequate compensation for the totality of Ms. Martin’s injuries and as such filed a motion for what is called additur. Additur is an additional award of damages added to a jury verdict by the trial court judge. Judges are not permitted to engage in this type of change in the verdict in all states but Louisiana law allows for it. The judge in Ms. Martin’s case tacked an additional $17,000 on to her award citing Ms. Martin’s soft tissue injury as the reason for which she was entitled to recovery. The court broke down its additional $17,000 into $14,000 for past physical pain, $2,000 for past mental anguish and $1,000 for loss of enjoyment of life.
This award of general damages was still not enough for the plaintiffs so an appeal followed this judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The appellate court, however, was unmoved by the plaintiffs’ arguments and did not disturb the trial court’s findings or award. The plaintiffs alleged that when the trial court cited soft tissue injuries it was incorrectly noting the severity of Ms. Martin’s injuries because she also had a bulging disc in her back. The appellate court was bound to look for a manifest error in the trial court’s finding of fact on appeal and was thus not compelled to disturb the findings or the resulting award due to this minor oversight.
There was evidence in the trial record indicating that Ms. Martin’s bulging disc was minimal and that her spine was not touching her spinal cord. Dr. Ledbetter testified during the trial concerning the extent and severity of Ms. Martin’s injuries. His testimony focused on the soft tissue injuries that she had sustained as result of her accident. The appellate court was therefore unable to state that the trial court had committed a manifest error when it attributed Ms. Martin’s injuries primarily to soft tissue damage.
In addition to a strong presumption that the trial court has rendered appropriate factual findings absent strong evidence to the contrary, the trial court also enjoys a strong presumption that its judgment notwithstanding the verdict was rendered correctly. A trial court is vested with vast discretion when rendering a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Without a finding of abuse of this discretion by an appellate court, such a judgment will not be overturned.
Trial courts are viewed as the best seeker of the truth of legal matters. Appellate courts deal with a cold record and do not have an opportunity to question witnesses or listen to witnesses testify live. As such, presumptions regarding judgments notwithstanding the verdict and factual findings are strongly in favor of trial courts when cases are appealed. Issues of law are reviewed de novo because appellate courts are seen as better wardens of the actual law than trial courts in some cases. Differing standards of review make different issues more or less likely to succeed on appeal. Standards of review should be considered carefully when seeking appellate review. The appellate court’s opinion in Ms. Martin’s case can be viewed here.
If you have been injured in an accident or need the advice of a lawyer, call the Berniard Law Firm, toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 today.