A Philadelphia trial judge has ruled that a jury in a motor vehicle accident case was required to award damages in a case in which both sides' experts agreed there had been injuries.
In his July 19 opinion in Sturgis v. Thompson, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Eugene Maier defended his decision to instruct the jury to continue deliberating after it originally returned a zero-dollar verdict.
Maier urged the state Superior Court to deny defendant Hugh A. Thompson's post-trial motion for zero damages or a new trial, saying he did not meet the evidentiary requirements to illustrate excessiveness in the damages award or abuse of discretion on the court's part.
"To the extent that [Thompson] is arguing that the damage award was excessive, he is in essence seeking remittur or a new trial," Maier said. "However, our Superior Court has made it clear that a verdict is only to be overturned if it is so grossly excessive as to shock one's sense of justice."
The case stems from a 2009 motor-vehicle accident. The plaintiff, Debra Sturgis, filed suit against Thompson, who admitted liability in the rear-end collision. Though Sturgis missed seven months of work for chiropractic treatment, she did not claim lost wages.
"The sole issues before the jury were the nature and extent of the injuries sustained by [Sturgis], and the damages to compensate her for the same," Maier said.
Sturgis sustained injuries to her neck, shoulders and lower back as confirmed by her medical expert, according to Maier. Sturgis' chiropractor also testified that increased physical activity in the future could cause her injuries to flare up and she could experience pain, primarily from the lumbar contusion she sustained as a result of the accident.
Thompson's medical expert agreed that Sturgis sustained a lumbar contusion in the accident, according to Maier.
Maier noted that the jury initially returned a verdict of zero dollars, which caused Sturgis to object and prompted the court to order the jury to continue deliberations as to damages.
"[Sturgis] correctly objected that [her] experts and a defendant expert had agreed that there had been injuries," Maier said. "[Sturgis] further objected that case law mandates where there is a conceded injury that at least some damages must be awarded and that a zero-damages award would require a new trial."
The jury was instructed to continue deliberations because, as Maier noted, the experts for both sides had agreed there were damages. "Ultimately, the jury found in favor of [Sturgis] in the amount of $10,142," he said.
The verdict was then molded to $10,556, Maier said.
Thompson filed a post-trial motion for zero damages or, in the alternative, for a new trial. According to Maier, Thompson raised three issues on appeal: There was no evidence of future pain and suffering presented, the court should not have instructed the jury that the zero-damage award was not appropriate under the facts of the case and, lastly, the zero-damage award was not against the weight of the evidence.
"There is no merit to any of the arguments [Thompson] raises on appeal," Maier said. "There was ample evidence that [Sturgis] sustained compensable injuries. Pursuant to case law, and the facts of the case, the corrected jury instruction was appropriate. The $10,142 verdict bore a reasonable relation to the injuries suffered by [Sturgis]."
Maier relied partly on Standard Pennsylvania Civil Jury Charge 7.60 to support his argument. The charge states that "the parties agree that the plaintiff sustained some injury in the accident. The defense medical expert testified that the accident caused some injury to the plaintiff. The defense disputes the extent of the injury caused. Therefore, if you find the defendant negligent, you must award the plaintiff some damages for those injuries."
Maier said Jury Charge 7.60was essentially the charge given to the jury.
"Where both parties agree that there is an injury, zero damages for pain and suffering is not appropriate," he emphasized, citing the 2005 Superior Court case Womack v. Crowley and the 2000 Superior Court case Burnhauser v. Bumberger.
According to Maier, he denied Thompson's post-trial motion because there was sufficient evidence of injury — acknowledged by Thompson's own expert — and the damages awarded were not grossly excessive, nor a "shock to the court's sense of justice."
As for the motion for a new trial, Maier said Thompson failed to meet the burden of proving that "the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law which affected the outcome of the case," as per the state Supreme Court's 1999 ruling in Price v. Guy.
"Evidence was presented at trial with respect to [Sturgis'] injuries; pain and suffering, past, present and future; and loss of ability to enjoy life's pleasures. [Sturgis'] testimony about her difficulties was corroborated by her experts; and to a limited extend by [Thompson's] own expert," Maier concluded.
(Copies of the eight-page opinion in Sturgis v. Thompson, PICS No. 13-2304, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •