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From Products Liability Law Daily, October 2, 2015

Trial court’s $600,000 increase in jury award reinstated against Ford

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

In reversing a trial court’s addition of $600,000 to a jury’s $300,000 award in favor of the estate of a driver who was killed in an accident involving a pick-up truck manufactured by Ford Motor Co., the South Carolina Court of Appeals ignored the applicable standard of review and committed an error of law in holding that additur was not available when any amount of noneconomic damages are awarded. Although the appellate court was correct in ruling that Ford was entitled to set off the proceeds of a settlement agreement between the estate and the driver of the other car involved in the accident, the South Carolina Supreme court found that the appellate court erred in reapportioning the proceeds of that settlement. Thus, the state high court reinstated the trial court’s increased damage award and ordered that the settlement proceeds be set off against the verdict in accordance with the terms of the agreement (Riley v. Ford Motor Co., September 30, 2015, Kittredge, J.).

Background. Benjamin Riley was killed when the Ford F-150 pickup truck he was driving was hit by another vehicle, causing his truck to leave the road and roll over. During the initial collision with the other vehicle, the driver’s side door of the truck opened; Riley was ejected through the open door and was killed. Riley’s widow brought wrongful death and survival claims against Ford Motor Company, alleging that the door-latch system on the truck was negligently designed and that Riley would not have died if he had not been ejected from the truck. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the estate for $300,000 in actual damages, which the trial court increased to $900,000.

On appeal, the South Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s verdict, finding that the driver’s estate had provided sufficient evidence of how and why the truck’s door latch system was defective to overcome the manufacturer’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. However, the appellate court found that the trial court had no compelling reasons for increasing the jury verdict from $300,000 to $900,000, emphasizing that the assessment of noneconomic damages was to be made by juries, not by judges, and that the trial court’s mere disagreement with the jury’s determination was not a compelling enough reason to grant additur. The appellate court also reversed the trial court’s decision to deny setoff for the amount the driver of the other vehicle paid the estate to settle the claims against him and concluded that a fair allocation of the settlement was 80 percent to the wrongful death claim and 20 percent to the survival action, with 80 percent of the settlement to be set off against the jury’s verdict [see Products Liability Law Daily’s February 6, 2014 analysis]. The driver’s estate appealed.

Additur standard of review.  In evaluating the question of whether the trial court had abused its discretion in granting the motion for a new trial nisi additur based on a challenge that the verdict was inadequate, the appellate court should not have focused its inquiry on a de novo evaluation of whether there was sufficient justification for “invading the jury’s province,” the state high court instructed. Instead, the appellate court should have applied the abuse-of-discretion standard to the inquiry. In this case, the trial court had provided a thorough recitation of the uncontested and emotionally compelling evidence, which demonstrated both the pecuniary losses suffered by the driver’s family and the noneconomic compensable elements of loss that are recoverable in a wrongful death action. Under the applicable standard, it was clear from the record that the trial court found the jury’s verdict to be inadequate, yet not so shockingly inadequate as to warrant a new trial. Based on the trial court’s correct application of the law and the extensive evidence provided on the proper elements of damages in a wrongful death action, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting the motion for nisi additur.

Effect of noneconomic damages award. The state supreme court went on to explain that the appellate court’s decision that a nisi additur was not available when any amount of noneconomic damages was awarded was an error of law. There was no categorical rule prohibiting additur when a jury verdict includes some measure of noneconomic damages. In this case, the trial court had been fully aware that the jury’s verdict included an award of noneconomic damages, yet the judge articulated compelling circumstances which warranted the additur. The state supreme court found no abuse of discretion on the part of the trial court in doing so.

Reallocation and setoff calculation. Acknowledging that Ford was entitled to offset whatever portion of the settlement reached between the estate and the driver of the other vehicle involved in the accident, the supreme court clarified that the issue before it was whether the court of appeals erred in reapportioning the $25,000 settlement between the survival and wrongful death claims. The general rule of law was that any reduction in the judgment must result from a settlement for the same cause of action. In this case the court of appeals erred in reapportioning the settlement proceeds on the sole basis that the parties’ agreed-upon allocation between the survival and wrongful death claims did not seem to be proportionately reasonable. Given the totality of the circumstances and in light of the reasonableness of the overall amount of $20,000 that had been assigned to the driver’s conscious pain and suffering, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that it was error for the appellate court to disturb the settling parties’ agreed-upon allocation of that amount to the survivor action and the remaining $5,000 to the wrongful death claim.

The case is No. 27575.

Attorneys: Ronnie L. Crosby (Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, PA) for Laura Riley. C. Mitchell Brown (Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP) and Curtis L. Ott (Gallivan, White & Boyd, PA) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews DamagesNews MotorEquipmentNews SouthCarolinaNews

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