The jury is the ultimate trier of fact. In our democratic society, we place high value on the idea of being judged by a panel of your peers. In addition, it allows the accused to be judged by the prevailing community standards. The jury is supposed to be more in touch with the average person than the average judge would be. Generally, since the jury is held is such high regard, the court of appeals is hesitant to overturn any of their decisions. The court explained this notion in a case arising from Cameron Parish, Louisiana.
In that case, a truck driver swerved to avoid a sign placed there by the Department of Transportation and Development. The sign was too far on to the road, the truck driver did not notice the misplacement fast enough, and had to swerve to avoid hitting the sign. When he swerved, he lost control and ended up in a ditch that Hurricane Ike damaged. The truck flipped and, although the truck driver was not harmed upon the collision, he was stuck in the vehicle upside-down. After forty-five minutes of being pinned upside-down, the truck driver died of asphyxiation. His wife and three children sued the DOTD based on general damages, lost past and future wages, survival damages, and funeral expenses.
The lower court found that the DOTD was fifty percent at fault and the truck driver was also fifty percent at fault. As such, the lower court awarded damages that amounted to $700,000 in total. Fault determinations are extremely fact intensive, so the lower court, as the trier of fact has broad abilities to make these determinations. As such, they are difficult to overturn in the court of appeals.
In this type of case, the court of appeals will review the lower court based on a standard of manifest error. That is, the court of appeals will only reverse the lower court if there is a clear error based on a mistake regarding the facts and that because of this mistake in the facts, the final outcome is clearly wrong. In addition, since there are damages awarded by a jury in this case, the court will also look at those damages to determine if they are reasonable.
This case had “special damages” because it included damages for lost past and future wages. Special damages are those that have a “ready market value.” Unlike many forms of damages, it is much easier to assign a dollar figure to special damages. For example, if you lost your arm, it would be difficult to put a dollar figure on what your arm was worth to you. However, if you lost your job, as this truck driver did, then you could take the number of years that you are expecting to work multiplied by your expected yearly salary and come up with a number that would resemble the damages for lost wages.
In this case, the truck driver earned roughly $41,000 per year. He was expected to be able to work for another twenty-five years. When you take the present value of those figures (you have to assume that the future dollars are worth less than the present dollars), you’d get a figure that is roughly four times what the jury actually awarded for lost wages. The appeals court considered these numbers and determined that although juries are granted great deference, the appeals court will correct them if they are clearly wrong. The appeals court thought that, based on the computations provided at trial, that the damages amount for lost wages was abusively low. Therefore, the appeals court increased the damages significantly.
The court of appeals can increase or decrease damages if they feel the need. However, the jury and the lower court judge get great deference because they are the fact-finders. The appeals court will only step in if they see manifest error. In this case, the manifest error was based on simple math.
It is important to consider your options for damages in appeals. Even when you “win” the case, you may be entitled to a larger award.
The Berniard Law Firm can help walk you through these considerations. If you have a legal question, call The Berniard Law Firm toll free at 1-866-574-8005 and we would be happy to help.