New Damages Trial Granted Because Jury Ignored Expert Testimony

Written on Thursday, October 1st, 2020 by T.C. Kelly
Filed under: Expert Opinions, General, Working with Experts

Bradley Myers sued Frank Sebastianelli and his business, Ameripride Fence Company, for personal injuries. Myers was employed as a truck driver. He delivered materials to Sebastianelli’s company. The only forklift at Ameripride was inoperable, so Myers attempted to unload the materials by hand.

Bundles of pipe were placed across dunnage (similar to landscaping timbers) on the floor of the truck. The dunnage allows the fork of a forklift to slide beneath the bundles of pipe. As Myers was attempting to unload the pipe, a piece of dunnage swung in his direction, fracturing the tibia and fibula in his left leg. He also suffered a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.

Myers argued that Sebastianelli was negligent for failing to supply a working forklift to unload the materials from the truck. A jury apportioned negligence to each party, finding that 51% of the fault for the accident rested with Sebastianelli while attributing the remaining 49% to Myers.

Expert Testimony

Myers supported his claim for damages with expert testimony from several witnesses. An orthopedic surgeon testified that he surgically inserted a metal rod in Myers’ leg. Myers needed a second surgery after he developed compartment syndrome. Following that surgery, he developed chronic regional pain syndrome, accompanied by swelling in the leg. The surgeon testified that the pain syndrome is a permanent condition that prevents Myers from returning to his former work. The surgeon later removed the rod and discussed amputation as an alternative to living with the pain.

A reconstructive surgeon testified about treating wounds to Myers’ leg following the surgery and the permanent scarring that those wounds caused. An expert in rehabilitative medicine testified about limitations in Myers’ leg that make it difficult for him to walk. The doctor testified about pain treatment for Myers’ syndrome and confirmed that Myers is only able to work at light duty jobs involving very limited standing or sitting and no climbing or significant lifting.

Another orthopedic surgeon testified about surgical repairs made to Myers’ torn rotator cuff. The parties agreed that the cost of medical care Myers had received for his leg and shoulder injuries to date was about $530,000.

An expert in nursing, nurse life-care planning and projecting future medical costs testified that the future cost of pain management and medical treatment will be about $910,000. Additional costs of about $200,000 will be incurred if Myers elects to have an amputation and to use a spinal stimulator to ease his pain.

Finally, Myers offered the testimony of a vocational expert and forensic economist. That expert calculated that the injuries caused Myers to lose wages and benefits of about $212,000. He testified that Myers’ loss of future earning capacity and benefits has a value of about $1 million.

Challenge to Jury Verdict

The defense did little to challenge the expert testimony regarding Myers’ damages. The defense focused instead on liability. It succeeded to the extent that the jury found Myers to be 49% at fault. Under North Carolina law, that finding caused he amount the jury awarded to Myers as damages to be reduced by 49%.

Inexplicably, the jury awarded Myers nothing for past or future medical expenses. It also awarded nothing for lost earnings or loss of future earning capacity. The jury awarded $500,000 for past and future pain and suffering.

Myers moved for a new trial. He argued that the expert testimony established that he had incurred medical expenses and a wage loss because of his injuries. The expert testimony also related his wage loss and loss of future earning capacity to his accident injuries. Myers contended that the jury had no basis for ignoring the expert testimony when it awarded him no damages for those losses.

The trial court decided not to disturb the jury verdict for pain and suffering. It did, however, award Myers a new trial regarding his economic damages.

Appellate Decision

Both parties appealed from the order granting a new trial. Sebastianelli argued that juries decide damages and that the jury had spoken. In the absence of any argument that Myers received an unfair trial, Sebastianelli asked the appellate court to respect the jury’s decision.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed that jury verdicts are not typically disturbed, but it concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting a new trial as to economic damages. Pennsylvania law permits a damages verdict to be “set aside as inadequate when, and only when, it is so inadequate as to indicate passion, prejudice, partiality, or corruption, or that the jury disregarded the instruction of the court, or in some instances, where there was a vital misapprehension or mistake on the part of the jury, or where it clearly appears from the uncontradicted evidence that the amount of the verdict bears no reasonable relation to the loss suffered by the plaintiff.”

The jury found that Sebastianelli was negligent and that his negligence caused harm to Myers. No evidence suggested that any other cause contributed to those injuries. Medical expenses were obviously part of the harm that Sebastianelli’s negligence caused. Expert testimony established that Myers’ accident injuries required medical attention. Sebastianelli offered no expert evidence to the contrary.

The parties stipulated to the amount and reasonableness of Sebastianelli’s past medical expenses. The jury was not free to disregard that stipulation. Nor was it free to disregard uncontradicted expert evidence that the expenses were incurred because of Myers’ accident.

The jury may have had more leeway in awarding future medical expenses, given the absence of a stipulation about the likely amount of those expenses. In addition, there was a factual dispute as to whether the expense of an amputation and/or a spinal cord stimulator should be included in the verdict, given that Myers had refused both treatments.

If the jury had awarded an amount for future medical expenses that was in the ballpark of the expert’s projection, after subtracting the cost of an amputation and spinal cord stimulation, Myers would not likely have been given a new trial as to future medical expenses. However, since the expert testimony that he would need some amount of future health care was uncontradicted, the jury was not free to ignore that testimony and to award Myers nothing.

The same analysis required an affirmance of the trial court’s decision to grant a new trial regarding lost wages. Myers’ serious injuries clearly prevent him from returning to work as a truck driver. While there may have been a dispute about Myers’ alleged failure to mitigate his damages by not agreeing to an amputation or spinal cord stimulation, the expert evidence that he lost income and will continue to lose income because of his inability to work as a truck driver was unchallenged. A verdict of zero was not supported by the evidence.

Jurors Cannot Ignore Uncontested Expert Evidence

Jurors are free to disbelieve expert testimony if they have a rational basis for doing so. The Superior Court agreed with the trial court that there was no rational reason to disregard uncontradicted expert testimony regarding damages.

Sebastianelli argued that the jury may have returned a compromise verdict. While the Superior Court noted that Pennsylvania law regarding compromise verdicts is “murky,” it deferred to the trial judge’s conclusion that the verdict did not result from a compromise.

It is difficult to understand how a rational compromise could have resulted in a decision to award damages for pain and suffering resulting from an accident but not for medical expenses and lost wages resulting from the same accident. The trial judge was in the best position to decide whether the jury’s verdict likely represented a compromise rather than an irrational failure to award damages that were clearly established by the evidence.

Sebastianelli argued that if a new trial is granted, it should address all categories of damages, including pain and suffering, not just economic damages. Myers did not oppose that request, probably because most juries return a larger award for pain and suffering than they award for medical expenses. The appellate court agreed to allow Myers to present expert testimony as to all issues of damages.

 

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

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