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Zero damages

A week ago I related the happy tale of the personal injury case in which Allstate had offered $6,300 to a plaintiff with $8,100 in medical specials, not even bothering to raise the ante when the plaintiff reduced his demand from $30,000 to $20,000 the week before trial, only to watch a jury traipse back into the courtroom and award the plaintiff $115,000, and then have the trial judge top that off with an award of $32,700 in prejudgment interest.  Unfortunately, the grim realities of personal injury law are better captured by a trio of cases from other appellate districts over the past few weeks.

Faring worst of the lot was the plaintiff in Turner v. Nationwide, where the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff of zero dollars despite an admission of liability by the defendant.  The amount of plaintiff's medical expenses aren't given in the opinion, but they certainly weren't insubstantial: the plaintiff claimed he needed two surgeries after the accident.  The most interesting aspect of the case was plaintiff's argument that the jury's disregard of the medical bills required reversal because of RC 2317.421, which creates a prima facie presumption that medical bills in a personal injury action are reasonable.  As the court pointed out, though, it doesn't create a presumption that the bills (and the treatment) are necessary, and in light of the plaintiff's extensive pre-accident medical history, the jury could have disregarded the expert testimony and concluded that the treatment wasn't in fact necessitated by the accident.

In personal injury cases, as in life, something's better than nothing, and that's especially true where the jury awards damages for medical expenses but nothing else, as happened in the 7th District case of Wines v. Flowers.  The lower court had awarded a new trial, in reliance on the substantial case law that a new trial can be granted where "medical expenses are awarded in full but no damages are awarded for pain and suffering...."  The plaintiffs claimed that the new trial should be limited to the question of pain and suffering, and not go back into the award of $5,113 in medical expenses.  The appellate court reviewed the law, found cases going both ways -- some limiting the new trial to pain and suffering, others opening up the entire case -- concluded it was discretionary with the trial judge, and found no abuse of discretion.

The worst case of the bunch is Elwer v. Carrol's Corp., where the plaintiff had contracted e. coli at a Burger King.  The jury returned with a verdict of $13,385.76, the exact amount of the medical bills.  Upon being instructed to deliberate further on the amount of damages beyond the medical bills, the jury came back with an award of $13,400.  The trial court refused to grant an additur, and the 3rd District affirmed.

It's not easy to justify that result.  If the plaintiff wouldn't have been fairly compensated by an award of just her medical bills, it's hard to see how fair compensation is achieved simply by tossing her another fourteen bucks and change.  The court stuck to a "bright-line" rule, though:  awarding money for medical bills but zero for pain and suffering is wrong, but zero + one makes it all better.

A large part of the problem here may have been the plaintiff's decision to forego submitting a transcript of the trial as part of the record on appeal, and relying on a purely legal argument.  That's understandable to an extent, because it can be made solely in legal terms.  As a practical matter, though, I'd much rather have the appellate brief include a Statement of Facts regaling the appellate court with the testimony at trial explaining just how much fun an e. coli infestation is.  If you're going to make an argument that $14.25 isn't reasonable compensation for something, showing exactly how bad that "something" was seems like a good idea.

Moral of the story:  Your Mama was right when she said you should've gone into corporate law.

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