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Responding to a slew of Pennsylvania Superior Court decisions denying juries the right to withhold damages for pain and suffering, the state supreme court has given the power back to the fact-finder. “We specifically reject the Superior Court’s application of a per se rule precluding a jury from awarding medical expenses without damages for pain and suffering,” the high court said in Davis v. Mullen. In so holding, the court said there simply may be instances in which a jury does not believe that the plaintiff underwent pain and suffering for the injuries alleged or that the alleged injury was not caused by the defendant’s negligence, Justice Sandra Schultz Newman said. The decision, which was unanimous, recognized the apparent confusion in these cases. There are “two lines of cases,” Newman said. “In the first line of cases, we have affirmed trial court decisions granting new trials where juries awarded medical expenses, but declined to award damages for pain and suffering. In the second line of cases, we have upheld jury verdicts awarding medical expenses without corresponding awards for pain and suffering.” The opinion released Wednesday, she said, “synthesizes these seemingly inconsistent holdings.” AUTO ACCIDENT Jeffrey Mullen fell asleep at the wheel of his car, crossed the center line of a highway and hit the tractor-trailer of plaintiff Jody Davis. As a result of the impact, Davis’ truck traveled up an embankment and turned on its side. Davis was taken to a hospital, where he was X-rayed and then discharged with a prescription for painkillers. Davis testified that he was bruised and sore, that he had a painful abrasion on his right thigh, and that his lower back and neck were in pain. However, two days later, Davis resumed his “10-hour-a-day, five- to seven-day-a-week work schedule driving the tractor-trailer,” Newman said. Twenty days after the accident, Davis began treatment with a chiropractor for back and neck pain and numbness in his right leg. The chiropractor diagnosed Davis with a muscle spasm and misalignment of the cervical spine. After 20 visits to the chiropractor, Davis stopped treatment and has not sought any further therapy or taken any pain medication for his injuries. Davis sued Mullen for damages arising out of the accident. At trial, Mullen admitted liability but disputed the extent of Davis’ injury. Davis’ chiropractor also testified at trial that he could not say for certain whether the spinal injury was related to the accident or was from another cause, including any one of the three previous auto accidents that Davis acknowledged having been involved in. The jury awarded Davis $4,218.44, which was the sum Davis had claimed for medical expenses and damage to his personal property. Davis filed a motion seeking a new trial, arguing that the award was inadequate because it didn’t compensate him for pain and suffering. The trial court denied the motion. On appeal, a split Superior Court reversed, holding that the damage award was inconsistent with the evidence presented. RELYING ON ‘DOUGHERTY’ The two-judge Superior Court majority, led by President Judge Joseph Del Sole, relied exclusively on the intermediate appeals court’s decision in Dougherty v. McLaughlin. In Dougherty, the jury awarded the plaintiff damages for his medical costs but didn’t compensate him for pain and suffering. The plaintiff in that case presented “uncontradicted medical evidence” that his two days in the hospital included treatment for injuries to the face, neck and head resulting in permanent scarring and nerve damage, whiplash, a concussion and torn shoulder ligaments, in addition to a fractured rib. After the accident, the plaintiff underwent surgery and three scar revisions in an attempt to make the scars less obvious. The Superior Court held that the damages awarded in Dougherty were inconsistent because of the failure of the jury to award damages for pain and suffering along with damages for the medical expenses. The defendant did not appeal the Superior Court’s decision. Following its decision in Dougherty, the Superior Court in Davis established a per se rule that a jury award is inconsistent if it compensates for medical expenses stemming from the claimed injuries but does not compensate for pain from those injuries. But the supreme court said a per se rule was inappropriate. “By following Dougherty, the Superior Court foreclosed juries from making essential determinations that are within their purview,” Newman wrote. “Indeed, the existence of compensable pain is an issue of credibility, and juries must believe that plaintiffs suffered pain before they compensate for that pain.” TWO LINES OF CASES Newman said there had been cases in which the high court upheld the authority of trial courts to order new trials in cases in which the jury’s award of medical expenses without damages for pain and suffering was “inconsistent and totally inadequate.” In those cases, “the plaintiffs’ injuries were too severe for the trial courts to have had a reasonable basis to believe that the juries’ awards of medical expenses, without compensation for pain and suffering, were based on any determination properly in [the] province of the juries.” But in the second line of cases, Newman said, the court “focused on the power of the jury as the ultimate finder of fact and the need for the judiciary to guard against usurping the role of the jury.” “With those policies in mind, we have held that a jury award of medical expenses without a corresponding award of damages for pain and suffering is not necessarily inconsistent.” In one case, Boggavarapu v. Ponist, which involved a minor dog bite that required a Band-Aid and two tetanus shots, the high court said the jury was “not obliged to believe that every injury causes pain or the pain alleged.” Newman said an analysis of these two lines of cases demonstrates there are instances in which a jury may award damages for medical costs without awarding damages for pain and suffering. “Today we hold that a jury’s award of medical expenses without compensation for pain and suffering should not be disturbed where the trial court had a reasonable basis to believe that (1) the jury did not believe the plaintiff suffered any pain and suffering, or (2) that a pre-existing condition or injury was the sole cause of the alleged pain and suffering.” Applying this rule to Davis’ case, the court concluded that it was not an error for the trial court to deny the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial. “On cross-examination, Davis admitted that: he did not miss any work as a result of the accident; he waited 20 days after the accident before visiting a doctor; he quit treatment after only 20 visits with the doctor; and he has not received any medical treatment for the injuries he claims to have suffered as a result of the accident since July of 1995,” Newman wrote. “Accordingly we determine that the trial court properly exercised its discretion when it denied Davis’ motion for a new trial because there was a reasonable basis for the jury to believe: (1) that Davis did not suffer pain and/or (2) that his alleged injury was not caused by the negligence of the defendant.”

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