Friday, April 24, 2015

Compromise Verdict Upheld Even Though Parties Stipulated to Amount of Economic Damages

In its recent decision in Kinderman v. Cunningham, No. 1604 EDA 2013, 2015 Pa. Super. 30 (Pa. Super. Feb. 11, 2015 Bowes, Ott, Jenkins, J.J.) (Op. by Bowes, J.)(Ott, J., Dissenting), the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that a new trial ordered by the lower court on the issue of damages was improper where the jury’s award of only a fraction of the uncontested economic damages presented at trial likely represented a compromise verdict based upon the substantial conflict over the issue of liability.

This case arose out of a fractured ankle that allegedly resulted from a boating accident.   In its Opinion, the court noted that the issue of liability was hotly contested and witnesses provided conflicting accounts as to how the accident happened and who was at fault.  

At trial, the Plaintiff’s medical bills and lost wages were stipulated to by both parties.  More specifically, the parties agreed that the Plaintiff's medical expenses amounted to $28,541.15 and his wage losses totalled $8,872.50.  As such, going into the trial, the parties had stipulated that the Plaintiff's economic damages claims amounted to a total sum of $37,413.65.

Nevertheless, the jury returned a verdict finding the Plaintiff and the Defendant equally negligent (i.e., 50-50) and awarded damages only in the amount of $10,000.00, which were reduced to $5,000.00 to reflect the Plaintiff’s 50% contributory negligence.  

On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that the jury’s award was arbitrary and contrary to the uncontested evidence of the economic damages presented.  

The defense argued that the jury was permitted to compromise its award of damages in light of the contested issues of liability. 

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recognized that compromise verdicts were permissible under Pennsylvania law.   The appellate court again emphasized that there were contested arguments and conflicting testimony on the liability issues.   It appeared to the Pennsylvania Superior Court that it was likely that the jury reached an impasse and compromised on the verdict to reach an agreement on the question of liability.  Ultimately,  the Superior Court found that the jury’s verdict was sufficiently supported by the record.    

As such, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that, where a substantial conflict on the issue of liability indicated that the jury reached a compromise verdict, it would have been an abuse of discretion for the trial court to grant a new trial on the issue of damages.   As such, Superior Court ruled that the trial court properly denied a request for a new trial in this regard.

Anyone wishing to review the Majority Opinion of the Superior Court written by Judge Bowes may click this LINK.

The Dissenting Opinion by Judge Ott can be viewed HERE.

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