In addition to determining fault, juries are often tasked with the responsibility of setting damages, the amount an injured party may recover from a liable party. Obviously, most jury members are not experts who are perfectly capable of setting a damages amount with mathematical certainty, and even though expert testimony is often enlisted to help guide juries, jury verdicts are often hotly disputed. Although damages awards, like all jury determinations, are entitled to deference, a court does have discretion to alter a damages award it determines is too high or low. However, when a court exercises this power, disputes regarding the damages award are often just as bitter. Indeed, in a recent decision, Arnold v. Security Nat’l Ins. Co., the Fourth District Court of Appeal needed to address whether it was proper for a trial court to reduce a jury verdict the trial court considered excessive.
Arnold began with a car accident that left the plaintiff in this case seriously injured. The other driver did not have motor vehicle insurance, and the plaintiff brought suit against his personal uninsured motor vehicle insurance provider. In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that he suffered physical, emotional, and financial damage as a result of the uninsured driver’s negligence. The case ultimately proceeded to trial, at which the plaintiff produced expert testimony related to the past and future medical expenses he would likely incur as a result of a herniated disc resulting from the accident. His insurance company argued, however, that the plaintiff’s injuries were a result of prior injuries and dissociated, natural degenerative conditions.
The plaintiff also produced evidence supporting his claims of past and future pain and suffering, including evidence demonstrating that he would need to undergo a disc fusion surgery or endure persistent, lifelong pain if the microdiscectomy surgery he was scheduled to undergo following the trial was unsuccessful. With respect to these procedures, the plaintiff’s expert witness testified that many patients have significant resolution of symptoms following a microdiscectomy surgery but that a significant number continue to have persistent pain or recurring pain or, in some cases, a recurrent herniation that would require additional surgery. If the recurrent herniation occurred, the plaintiff would need a disc fusion surgery. The expert witness did acknowledge during cross examination, however, that there were uncertainties at the time about how the plaintiff would respond to the microdiscectomy surgery and whether he would need to ultimately undergo a disc fusion surgery.
The jury ultimately returned a verdict of $1,487, 413, of which $500,000 and $800,000 reflected the awards for past and future pain and suffering, respectively, and $126,000 reflected the award for future medical expenses. The insurance company moved for a new trial or, alternatively, remittitur of the damages award, arguing that the the allocation for future medical expenses was based on the plaintiff’s potential need to undergo a disc fusion surgery, which was predicated on speculative evidence. The insurer argued that the award for future medical expenses should be limited to $30,000, reflecting the cost of the microdiscectomy surgery. The trial court denied the motion for a new trial but did grant the insurer’s request for remittitur. It found the evidence related to the potential need for a disc fusion surgery to be speculative and reduced the award to $30,000. In addition, the court found that the non-economic damages figures for past and future pain and suffering were illogically connected to the evidence proffered, noting that the plaintiff worked full-time and was able to return to normal activities following the accident. Accordingly, it reduced the award to $200,000 for past pain and suffering and $200,000 for future pain and suffering. The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s remittitur decision.
With respect to jury awards in this context, the Supreme Court of Florida has noted that there is “an element of speculation in most personal injury verdicts” and that this determination “is a matter for jury discretion.” Sproule v. Nelson, 81 So. 2d 478, 481 (Fla. 1955). Indeed, although “[t]he court may review [the jury’s exercise of] discretion” it may not review “the amount awarded unless shown to be clearly arbitrary.” Id. The Supreme Court has further stated that “the question of damages is . . . lodged in the sound discretion of the jury . . . , and the findings of a jury . . . will not be disturbed . . . unless it plainly appears that the verdict was induced by prejudice . . . [,] misconception of the law or evidence, or . . . fail[ure] to consider all the elements of the damages involved or the issues submitted.” Higbee v. Dorigo, 66 So. 2d 684, 686 (Fla. 1953).
Accordingly, when a trial court decides to adjust an award, either upward or downward, its determination must be predicated clearly on evidence in the record demonstrating an error in the award. See De la Vallina v. De la Vallina, 107 So. 339, 339 (Fla. 1926). Although the plaintiff conceded that the trial court’s remittitur of the medical expenses award was justified, the plaintiff argued that the court erred in reducing the jury’s allocation for pain and suffering because there was sufficient evidence from which a jury could rationally reach the figures it reached. There are several factors outlined in Section 768.74(5) of the Florida Statues that trial courts should utilize to assess the validity of a damages award. § 768.74(5), Fla. Stat. (2013). Furthermore, Rule 1.530(f) of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure has been construed to require that the court provide an explanation founded in the record for the reduction in the jury award in order to facilitate a meaningful appellate review of the trial court’s decision-making. See, e.g., Wackenhut Corp. v. Canty, 359 So. 2d 430, 434 (Fla. 1978). In this case, the Fourth District noted that the trial court’s decision granting remittitur was too brief for appellate review. Indeed, the trial court only provided a conclusory explanation for its decision, and the appellate record was otherwise too incomplete for the appellate court to make an assessment of the propriety of the trial court’s decision. Accordingly, rather than getting to the heart of the matter, the Fourth District reversed the trial court’s remittitur of the damages award and remanded with instructions that the trial court provide a detailed explanation for its decision.
Fortunately for this driver who collided with an uninsured motorist, he will have a second opportunity to convince the trial court that the jury’s determination was the correct decision. Although personal injury litigation is often seen as routine, there can be many complexities beyond those associated with ascertaining the proper amount of damages. Indeed, those with a possible personal injury claim should always consider finding competent, experienced counsel to help them get compensation for their injuries. The South Florida auto accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented many injured South Florida drivers and are prepared to provide you with assistance for your possible claim. Indeed, if you have recently been injured in an car accident and are mulling over what legal options you may have, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.