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From Products Liability Law Daily, September 3, 2013

$43.8 million damage award to boy paralyzed in car accident reinstated

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

A $43.8 million jury verdict for a six-year old boy who was paralyzed in a car accident was reinstated by the Tennessee Supreme Court (Meals v. Ford, August 30, 2013, Lee, S.). A court of appeals had found that the verdict was excessive and suggested a 70 percent remittur, but the state high court found that the award was justified and reversed the appellate court.

Background. A six-year old boy suffered a spinal fracture and other serious injuries in a head-on collision while riding in the back seat of a 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis, resulting in paralysis from the waist down. He had been buckled in, but his father placed the shoulder strap behind his back because the strap ran directly across the boy’s face. His mother, Aundrey Meals, brought suit on his behalf against Ford and other defendants, alleging negligence, comparative fault, gross negligence, misrepresentation, breaches of express and implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, and strict liability, and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Following a trial, the jury found that Ford was 15 percent at fault, the other driver was 70 percent at fault, and the boy’s deceased father was 15 percent at fault, and awarded Meals $43.8 million in compensatory damages and no punitive damages, with Ford’s share at $6.57 million.

Ford moved for a new trial, arguing that the verdict was excessive, but did not seek remittur. The trial court denied the motion and affirmed the verdict in its capacity as a “thirteenth juror.” The appellate court agreed with Ford that the damages were excessive and remanded the judgment to the trial court with a suggestion of remittur that would reduce the damage award by 70.55 percent to $12.9 million, stating that the non-economic damages should be reduced to twice the proven quantifiable economic damages. Meals petitioned for review of the appellate court’s remittur and the reasonableness of the original jury award.

Remittur. The appellate court’s discretion to suggest remittur is narrower than a trial court’s discretion. The trial court serves as a check upon the jury’s discretion by serving as a “thirteenth juror,” in which it independently weighs and reviews the evidence, and if the judge is not satisfied with the award of damages, he or she may suggest a remittur that would reduce the award if accepted by the plaintiff. A trial judge may suggest remittur even if the verdict is within the range of reasonableness, based upon evidence of the injuries, pain and suffering, and past and future economic losses. The appellate court’s ability to suggest remittur depends on whether the trial court approved a verdict in its role of thirteenth juror. If it has, the court of appeals may only review the record to determine if the verdict was supported by material evidence, with its analysis very deferential to the jury’s award.

Reasonableness of jury’s damage award. The state supreme court determined that the child was entitled to a substantial damages award. He received numerous surgical procedures and has had frequent infections. He spent nearly 8 weeks in the hospital and nearly 4 weeks in a rehabilitation facility. He was permanently paralyzed from the waist down, will continue to have medical problems in the future, no longer has control of his bowel or bladder, will likely never father a child or have normal sexual functioning. Economic damages, including past and future medical bills and loss of future earning potential totaled $4.3 million, meaning that the jury’s general verdict of $43.8 million presumably included $39.5 million in non-economic damages.

Ford’s citations to cases involving wrongful death were not comparable because they involved different calculations of damages, the supreme court reasoned. Only two of Ford’s cited cases involving permanently injured plaintiffs addressed spinal cord injuries, and the state supreme court’s own research found that spinal court injuries resulted in substantial damage verdicts. The court of appeals had improperly relied on its previous decision in Potter v. Ford Motor Co.when ordering remittur (213 S.W.3d 264 (2006)), which the supreme court found to be dissimilar to the present case because the issue in Potter was liability rather than damages and there had been no discussion in the earlier case of economic and non-economic damages or of the life-expectancy of the plaintiff (who was 42 years old). Reviewing evidence in the light most favorable to Meals, the damage award by the jury—which has wide latitude in assessing non-economic damages—was not excessive for a boy who had sustained catastrophic and permanent injuries at age 6 and who had a projected lifespan of 55.79 years.

The case number is W2010-01493-SC-R11-CV.

Attorneys: J. Houston Gordon (J. Houston Gordon) for Aundrey Meals. Lawrence C. Mann (Bowman and Brooke LLP), Ryan Nelson Clark (Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop, P.C.), Christopher T. Handman (Hogan Lovells US LLP) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory DamagesNews DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews MotorEquipmentNews TennesseeNews

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