The authority of civil case jurors to decide whether damages should be awarded – and how much – is held in high regard. However, the trial judge does have some discretion to reduce damages (remittitur) or increase damages (nisi additur). This may be done if the award fails to adhere to some statutory guideline (such as a damage cap) or if the judge decides that failure to alter the award would result in a miscarriage of justice that could result in a new trial.
In the recent case of Riley v. Ford Motor Corp., the judge overseeing a product liability lawsuit against a motor vehicle manufacturer determined the jury’s award of $300,000 was far too low, given the loss to the family and community. Decedent, who was killed in a truck accident when a 16-year-old high school student swerved in front of him, was the county sheriff, a deacon at the local church, a father of five and a husband. He had been ejected in the collision after the impact caused his driver’s side door to pop open and he was ejected. His wife sued the teen as well as the vehicle manufacturer. Against the latter, she alleged the door latch system was defectively designed, and the proximate cause of her husband’s death.
The case against the teen was settled prior to trial for $25,000. Trial against the vehicle manufacturer proceeded, and plaintiff prevailed. During the damages portion of the proceeding, witness after witness after witness provided testimony to the court of decedent’s valued presence in their lives and in the community. It got to the point the judge actually had to have an in camera discussion about whether to continue to allow witnesses to testify – something the judge noted was extremely rare.
Despite this fact and the jury’s conclusion that the vehicle manufacturer had acted in a manner that displayed willful, wanton or reckless disregard for the well-being of others, jurors declined to award punitive damages.
Plaintiff then requested a nis additur, and the judge granted the request, awarding the family an additional $600,000 – for a total damage award of $900,000 from the vehicle manufacturer.
Defendant appealed, and the appellate court reversed. The case recently went before the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The court considered these facts:
Decedent was driving his pickup truck when the teen driver pulled out in front of him. Decedent swerved to avoid impact, but the two collided anyway. The impact of the crash caused decedent’s door to pop open, and decedent was ejected as his truck crashed into a cluster of trees. He died soon after.
It was later discovered by investigators that the vehicle door latch system seemed to be defective. There was debate about whether decedent was wearing his seat belt, though friends, family and colleagues said that being in law enforcement, he always did. There was no solid proof that he hadn’t been wearing it, other than the fact that he was ejected, though that was not necessarily definitive.
Although the appellate court in its reasoning determined the trial court judge’s mere disagreement with the jury’s award was no reason to grant a nisi additur, the state supreme court found the appeals court applied the wrong standard of review. It had reviewed the case de novo, when it should have reviewed for abuse of discretion. Here, there was no abuse of discretion, the state high court ruled, and therefore the trial judge’s increase of damages was reinstated.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Riley v. Ford Motor Corp., Sept. 30, 2015, South Carolina Supreme Court
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Swimming Pool Product Liability Lawsuit Barred Under 12-Year Repose Statute, Sept. 26, 2015, Boca Raton Injury Lawyer Blog