In injury cases, general damages aim to compensate the victim for mental or physical pain and suffering, inconvenience, loss of quality of life, or other “intangibles.” Because these damages cannot easily be quantified in monetary terms, the jury (or judge in a bench trial) is tasked with assessing and awarding them. Louisiana courts have consistently held that “in the assessment of damages, much discretion is left to the judge or jury, and upon appellate review such awards will be disturbed only when there has been a clear abuse of that discretion.” Furthermore, “[i]t is only after articulated analysis of the facts discloses an abuse of discretion, that the award may on appellate review be considered either excessive or insufficient.”
Given this deferential standard, it is relatively rare for a jury’s award of damages to be modified on appeal. Nevertheless, the case of Case v. Shelter Insurance Company, No. 10-302 (La. App. 3d Cir. 2010) offers an example. On May 22, 2006, Patricia Case was driving her car on Oday Road in Loreauville. She came upon a tractor being driven slowly by Barry Frederick, an employee of Burt Oubre Farms. Just as Case pulled into the oncoming lane in an effort to pass the tractor, Frederick began to make a left-hand turn across her path without signaling. The vehicles collided approximately two feet across the center line of Oday Road. Following the accident, Case experienced severe back pain that ultimately required her to undergo a lumbar microdiskectomy and laminectomy in December of 2007. Case filed a lawsuit against Frederick, Oubre Farms, and the farm’s insurance carrier, Shelter Insurance Company. At trial, the jury found Case 25 percent and Frederick 75 percent comparatively negligent and awarded Case $49,999.98 in general damages. Case appealed this judgment, arguing that the jury improperly found her negligent and that the general damages award was insufficient.
On appeal, the Third Circuit quickly dispensed with Case’s argument concerning liability, holding that the jury did not commit “manifest error” in reaching its conclusion. Next, turning to the issue of the damages award, the court applied the abuse of discretion standard. The court examined the extent and severity of Case’s injuries and reviewed the various cases relied upon by Case to substantiate that the jury’s award was “abusively low.” Despite the good recovery Case had made by the time of the trial, the court nevertheless found that “when considering the record as a whole, we are required to find the award of $49,999.98 in general damages below the range of the jury’s discretion.” The court referred to its prior decision in Este v. State Farm Insurance Company, 676 So.2d 850 (La. App. 3d Cir. 1996), where it held that “an award of $75,000 was the lowest amount within the court’s discretion for the aggravation of a pre-existing, asymptomatic, spondylosis and bulging disk that did not warrant surgery.” Thus, the court reasoned, “[i]f a simple bulging disk and aggravation of an asymptomatic spondylosis can be awarded a minimum of $75,000 in general damages, an active herniation of a disk with surgical intervention warrants a general damage award of $100,000.00; any amount below that would be considered an abuse of the jury’s vast discretion.” Accordingly, the court amended the jury’s damages award to $100,000.
The Third Circuit’s decision to increase Case’s general damages award was based on a very detailed review of the facts and a comparison to existing case law on the issue of general damages awards for back injuries to Cases’s circumstances. Nothing less persuasive than this favorable combination of both facts and law is likely to convince an appellate court that a jury has abused its discretion in setting a general damages award.
If you have been injured in an auto accident, call the Berniard Law Firm today toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a trial lawyer who can help you get the recovery you deserve.