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Judges’ orders reducing jury verdicts are common enough, but a California state court judge in San Francisco recently took a rare step in the opposite direction. Superior Court Judge Paul Alvarado ruled that a jury’s pain and suffering award of $713,000 to a paralyzed snowboarder was inadequate and issued a judgment adding $5.3 million. The judge’s order in Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., No. 317766, gave the defendants the option of paying the higher amount, or retrying the case before a new jury on the issue of noneconomic damages only. The plaintiff, 29-year-old Charlotte Vine, was paralyzed from the waist down after an accident in April 2000, during a Bear Valley employee party. Vine’s lawyers, Mike Danko and Niall G. Yamane of O’Reilly, Collins & Danko in San Mateo, Calif., argued that a ski jump had been constructed with angles that were too steep. The jury’s total award to Vine was $4.4 million, but on comparative negligence, it found her 54.4 percent responsible for her injuries. Of the $4.4 million, $713,000 was noneconomic damages for pain and suffering. Vine’s attorneys had asked the jury to award $10 million for pain and suffering. Vine’s appellate lawyer, Gary L. Simms, also of O’Reilly Collins, filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that the $713,000 noneconomic award was inadequate. The California Code of Civil Procedure allows lawyers to move for a new trial if the award is either insufficient or superfluous. Alvarado’s response, a two-page order increasing the award, said the verdict was “clearly inadequate in light of the catastrophic injury suffered by the plaintiff.” The defense attorney, Peter Koenig of Arter & Hadden’s San Francisco office, called the post-trial events “ridiculous” and complained that the judge’s order did not give the defense any time frame to answer. “$1.7 million is all that is on the books right now,” Koenig said. The jury’s verdict came on May 14 and the judge’s order was issued 60 days later on July 12 — the day his jurisdiction over the case expired, said Koenig. “I’m appealing everything,” he said. Anthony J. Tanke, a solo practitioner with an appellate practice in Davis, Calif., and a certified appellate specialist, said it is unusual for a judge to grant an additur — the Latin term for “adding damages” — as high as this. Tanke said he typically only sees additurs in “fender-bender” cases involving little money. “It is the 13th-juror function of a trial judge,” Tanke noted. “Even though a jury brings in a civil verdict, the trial judge acts as the 13th juror to reweigh the evidence. If it’s close, he’s supposed to leave the jury alone. But if it’s extraordinarily low or high, he’s supposed to grant a remittitur or an additur.” California’s Court of Appeal is obliged to hear the defendant’s appeal, Lucas said. After that, it falls to the discretion of the California Supreme Court. “If the Court of Appeal doesn’t publish the case, then it is not precedent and its file is only important to the parties,” Lucas said.

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