Let’s assume you represent a plaintiff in a personal injury action. The jury has just returned a verdict in your client’s favor but has only awarded your client an amount equal to the plaintiff’s past medical expenses without any compensation for past or future pain and suffering. Let’s assume also that the jury did so despite the fact that your client provided unrebutted testimony attesting to the pain and suffering he allegedly sustained.
Should you advise your client to accept the award, not to file post-trial motions or an appeal and move on? Or, should you advise your client to press his luck and challenge the verdict (arguing that he was aggrieved to the extent that the jury did not award him all the relief he requested), and seek a new trial, which may put him at risk for losing the entire award?
Let’s assume you represent the defendant in the same action. If the jury finds your client liable but only awards an amount equal to medical expenses, should you pay the amount of the verdict the jury returned and hope that the other side does not challenge? Should you appeal the verdict to ensure that you preserve the right to challenge liability if a new trial is granted?
The answer (like most everything else in the law) is: it depends.
In most civil cases, damage awards are considered legally insufficient (and, hence, justify the award of a new trial) when they fail to “fully and fairly compensate a plaintiff” for his or her injuries, where the amount awarded “bears no reasonable relationship” to the injuries sustained or where the verdict is so contrary to the evidence as to “shock one’s sense of justice.” A trial judge’s grant or refusal of a new trial for inadequacy of the verdict is a matter for the discretion of the trial court.
Indeed, Pennsylvania appellate courts have made clear that they will not interfere with a trial court’s decision to grant or deny a new trial on inadequacy grounds unless the lower court abused its discretion and the injustice of the verdict “stands forth like a beacon.”
In a breach of contract case, the analysis is easy; if the damages awarded are less than the amount proved, it is relatively simple for a court to conclude that the damages awarded bear no relationship to the injury sustained and, accordingly, that the plaintiff is entitled to a new trial on this basis alone.
The adequacy-of-damages issue becomes exponentially more complicated, however, in a medical malpractice case where damages for pain and suffering are involved. This is because personal injury damages traditionally are more difficult to quantify, the nature of the damages is often subjective, and in many cases, the issues boil down to those of credibility where the testimony comes only from the plaintiff himself or herself.
Plaintiffs often will argue post-trial that as a matter of law, the jury had no right to refuse to award pain and suffering damages and as a result, the plaintiff is entitled to a new trial on damages only. Defendants, on the other hand, argue that jury verdicts are sacrosanct, that the jury was free to accept (or in this type of case, reject) the plaintiff’s testimony and that a verdict that awards only medical expenses should not be disturbed.
As a general matter, courts in Pennsylvania will err on the side of awarding a new trial in a case where the jury finds liability on the part of a health care professional and awards some damages (like medical expenses), but fails to award damages for pain and suffering.
There are, however, important exceptions to this general rule that can allow such purportedly “inadequate” awards to stand.
In Davis v. Mullen, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court outlined two of those exceptions when it upheld a trial court’s denial of a new trial request. In Davis, the plaintiff claimed he had sustained injures after a head-on collision with another vehicle. After a jury awarded the plaintiff medical expenses, but awarded no damages for pain and suffering, the trial court denied Davis’s motion for a new trial.
The Superior Court reversed and ordered a new trial. The Supreme Court then reversed the Superior Court, and concluded that the trial court properly had exercised its discretion in denying the motion for new trial.
Specifically, the court held: “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.”
Under Davis, therefore, a jury is free to reject a claim for pain and suffering damages if it does not believe the testimony or if the plaintiff suffered from a condition that would have caused pain and suffering even if the defendant has acted properly.
Another situation in which a seemingly “inadequate” verdict can stand is where the verdict may be described correctly as a “compromise” verdict. “Compromise verdicts” generally are verdicts where the fact-finder is in doubt as to the defendant’s liability but, nevertheless, returns a verdict for the plaintiff in a lesser amount than it would have as a compromise.
Significantly, in Pennsylvania, “compromise verdicts” are favored in the law (the same is not true in all states) and, thus, may provide a method by which to uphold a medical-expenses-only award.
(The difficulty with relying on this exception lies in convincing the courts that there was a compromise. While some commentators have argued that requiring proof of a compromise verdict creates an impossible burden for a defendant — since without individually interviewing each of the jurors, one could never prove that the verdict as rendered was a compromise — some courts have still required at least circumstantial evidence of this fact.)
In sum, the decision about whether to challenge a verdict on inadequacy grounds depends on the amount of the original award and the reasons why the jury may have returned the verdict that it did. Because there is no bright-line rule requiring pain and suffering damages to be awarded in all cases — even where the testimony is unrebutted — practitioners should be careful to consider the circumstances to see whether the case fits into one of the exceptions cited above. Moreover, defendants should always argue in favor of a new trial on both liability and damages (and resist any attempt to have the new trial limited to damages only), in recognition of the fact that the original verdict may have been a compromise verdict.
Maureen McBride is a partner with Lamb McErlane, where she practices in the areas of appellate law, commercial litigation and products liability law. She is an active member of the firm’s post-trial and appellate advocacy group. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.