Although the end of a trial often means finality, seasoned litigators understand that, at least in some cases, it may simply be a precursor to protracted appellate battles. Indeed, a favorable ruling for a plaintiff is often not secure, for dissatisfied defendants will often take the case to an appellate court, seeking reversal on any ground possible. As the plaintiff in Ortega v. Belony, a recent case before Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, now knows, a trial court victory is often just the beginning.
Ortega arose from a motor vehicle accident in Miami-Dade County. As a result of the collision, the driver of one of the vehicles involved, who is the plaintiff in this case, suffered a broken neck. The plaintiff was hospitalized for eight days following the accident. Rather than undergoing surgery to repair the injury, the plaintiff elected to wear a “halo” for three months. During his rehabilitation, the plaintiff had difficulty sleeping and needed assistance with ordinary tasks such as bathing. Following the three months, the halo was removed, and the plaintiff only complained of residual back pain. His neck had almost fully healed, but the plaintiff sought additional treatment from an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon recommended surgery. However, the plaintiff again declined and instead opted for an injection treatment. The treatment was successful, and by the time of the trial, the plaintiff did not have difficulty performing daily activities and had not returned to the surgeon for any additional treatments.
The plaintiff filed suit against the other driver, and the case proceeded to a trial. Following the trial, the jury returned a verdict finding the plaintiff 70% at fault for the accident but awarding him the full $32,971.86 he sought for past and future medical expenses. The jury, however, awarded the plaintiff $0 for past and future pain and suffering. The trial judge found the plaintiff’s damages award inconsistent with the evidence and ordered the jury to reconsider its determination. The jury ultimately returned with an award of $5,000 for past and future pain and suffering. The plaintiff moved for additur, and the trial judge granted the motion, finding that an award of $5,000 was too low given the nature of the plaintiff’s injury. Accordingly, the trial judge increased the past and future pain and suffering award to $250,000. The defendant appealed the trial judge’s ruling.
On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal found the trial judge’s additur ruling to be unjustified and reversed. Under Florida law, pain and suffering judgments are, given that they are difficult to quantify, left to the discretion of the jury. See Pitcher v. Zappitell, 160 So. 3d 145, 147 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015). Accordingly, the jury’s ruling is considered to be presumptively valid and may only be altered if it is one that cannot be reached based on the evidence presented. See Republic Servs. of Fla., L.P. v. Poucher, 851 So. 2d 866, 869 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003). Indeed, as long as “a jury of reasonable men [and women] could have returned th[e] [same] verdict,” the award should not be disturbed. Griffis v. Hill, 230 So. 2d 143, 145 (Fla. 1969). In this case, the Third District found, unlike the trial judge, that the evidence did support the jury’s initial $5,000 ruling. Specifically, the court noted that the plaintiff was unsympathetic, and the majority of fault for the accident was credited to him. In addition, the court noted that the plaintiff did not suffer from recurring pain or disability as a result of the accident and healed from his injury relatively quickly. In light of this evidence, there was support for the jury’s original damages ruling, and therefore the trial judge’s adjustment was improper.
This case clearly demonstrates the power appellate courts wield, and it also shows the importance of convincing a jury rather than relying on persuading a trial judge. Indeed, appellate courts are often more reluctant to overturn the ruling of a jury than reverse a trial judge, and in this case, the plaintiff would have likely been more successful securing sufficient compensation by presenting evidence more likely to have the jury provide a larger award in the first instance instead of seeking additur. The assistance of counsel experienced in arguing before a jury can be helpful for anyone seeking adequate recovery. The South Florida car accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have considerable experience representing injured drivers before juries, and if you have recently been injured in a car accident and are curious about the viability of a possible claim, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.