Low Damage Award Set Aside by Appellate Court

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently vacated a judgment in a car accident case after finding that the “jury’s damages award [was] not supported by material evidence.” In Naraghian v. Wilson, No. W2014-02002-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 12, 2015), plaintiff’s car was struck from behind by defendant’s vehicle. According to plaintiff, she had come to a complete stop at a red light and was then hit. Defendant asserted, though, that he slowed down for the red light, but the light then changed to green and plaintiff began driving off, only to suddenly stop and cause the accident.

At trial, plaintiff presented evidence regarding her medical damages. Her treating chiropractor testified that “the treatments he provided were reasonable and necessary and stated that [plaintiff’s] injuries were the result of the traffic accident involving [defendant].” The total bill for plaintiff’s treatment was $13,440, and there was no real dispute at trial regarding the reasonableness or necessity of the charges. “Defense counsel did not submit any witness controverting the reasonableness of the charges that were billed, nor did defense counsel submit any proof rebutting the medical opinions testified to by [the chiropractor] as to the reasonableness or necessity of the treatment or as to the medical causation as a result of this accident.”

The jury found in favor of plaintiff and found her damages to be $7,831.67. Although the jury found defendant to be responsible, they also apportioned 44.58% of the fault to plaintiff, so her damages were accordingly decreased. After having her motion for a new trial denied, plaintiff appealed, asserting that “the damages awarded by the jury were disproportionate to the amount of damages proven at trial.”

The Court held that “[i]n light of the proof presented at trial, we must conclude that there is no material evidence to support an award of damages as low as that found by the jury.” The Court pointed out that defended “offered no proof contesting [the chiropractor’s] expert medical opinion that [plaintiff’s] injuries were the result of…the accident,” and that defendant “failed to present any evidence contesting that [the chiropractor’s] bills were reasonable and necessary.” The Court found that the award, which was less than 60% of the amount of plaintiff’s bills, “was not at or above the lower limit of the range of reasonableness.” (internal quotations omitted). The Court held that because they could not “reconcile the jury’s verdict with the undisputed evidence that was presented,” the trial court’s judgment should be vacated and the case remanded for a new trial.

The Court noted that they could have remanded for a new trial as to damages alone, but pointed out that if a “plain inference may be drawn that the verdict is the result of a compromise, a new trial should be ordered upon all issues.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Here, they found that liability was clearly a close call, as plaintiff was determined to be 44.58% at fault. The low damages award coupled with the liability percentage “lead [the court] to the ‘strong suspicion’ that the ultimate damages awarded were the result of some type of compromise,” making it appropriate for the case to be remanded for a completely new trial.

This was the correct result in this case. Plaintiff presented uncontroverted expert testimony regarding her damages. Even if the jury felt it necessary to apportion fault to plaintiff, that should not have affected the damages she clearly proved. Lessening damages awarded due to some kind of compromise in the jury room, then lessening that amount again based on the percent of fault assigned to plaintiff, punishes a plaintiff twice and results in gross under-compensation. The Court was right to remand this case.