Where there was material evidence to support the jury’s verdict of more than $1.5 million in a car accident case, the verdict was affirmed.
In Malone v. ASF Intermodal LLC, No. W2020-00430-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 353697 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 7, 2022), plaintiff was in a car accident caused by an employee of defendant, and defendant had admitted fault. The only issue in this personal injury case was damages. The evidence at trial showed that plaintiff drove himself home from the accident, but that he developed leg and back pain soon thereafter. Plaintiff and his experts also testified that plaintiff suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident. Defendant’s experts disputed that plaintiff’s pain was caused by the accident, pointing out that plaintiff had begun treatment for a chronic leg condition in his other leg seven years before the accident. While plaintiffs’ experts opined that his pain was caused by the accident, defendants’ experts testified that the chronic condition was the likely cause.
The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff and his wife in the amount of $2,519,772 for loss of earning capacity, future medical expenses, past pain and suffering, future pain and suffering, permanent injury, past loss of enjoyment of life, future loss of enjoyment of life, property damage, and loss of consortium. The trial court applied the statutory non-economic damages cap to reduce the award to $1,529,777, which the Court of Appeals affirmed in a lengthy opinion.
The sole issue on appeal was “whether the jury’s verdict [was] contrary to the law or evidence.” Noting that “[a]n appellate court will not disturb a jury’s verdict that is approved by the trial court if there is any material evidence to support the award,” the Court first looked to whether there was material evidence to support the finding that the accident caused plaintiff’s injuries. (internal citation omitted). The Court pointed out that plaintiff had three lay witnesses and two expert witnesses testify as to causation. Plaintiff’s first expert was a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who had examined plaintiff after the accident, and he “opined that [plaintiff’s] injuries were caused by the accident as opposed to his pre-existing [condition].” Plaintiff’s second expert also stated that the back and leg pain were caused by the accident. Defendant contradicted this testimony with three experts, two of whom never examined plaintiff but reviewed his medical records, and one who admitted on cross-examination that they did not consider whether his pain was caused by a herniated disk and that the condition plaintiff had could be worsened by trauma. Having reviewed the evidence presented, the Court stated that “the jury was free to believe one witness and disbelieve another.” (internal citation omitted). The Court thus found that there was “ample material evidence on which the jury could have concluded that [plaintiff’s] back and leg injuries were caused by the accident.”
Similarly, regarding plaintiff’s brain injury, plaintiff relied on two expert witnesses, and defendant countered with their own two experts. As with the back and leg pain, the Court of Appeals found that plaintiffs’ experts provided “sufficient material evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that [plaintiff’s] cognitive symptoms were caused by a traumatic brain injury he suffered in the collision.”
Turning to damages, defendant made two arguments—that “the evidence [was] insufficient to establish that [plaintiff’s] injuries constitute[d] permanent impairment” and that the jury’s award “exceed[ed] the range of reasonableness.” The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments.
Regarding the permanence of plaintiff’s injury, the Court found that plaintiffs’ experts had testified to some permanence for both his leg and back and his cognitive injuries, and that the medical testimony was “corroborated by [plaintiffs’] respective testimony that [plaintiff’s] physical and cognitive symptoms have not improved since the accident.” The Court ruled that this was sufficient material evidence from which the jury could find a permanent injury in this case.
For the award of future medical expenses, plaintiff needed to show “(1) that additional medical treatment is reasonably certain to be required in the future and (2) [provide evidence] that will enable the trier-of-fact to reasonably estimate the cost of the expected treatment,” and the Court of Appeals found material evidence supporting both of these factors. (internal citation omitted). Plaintiff had three experts who testified that future treatment would be needed. Regarding the expense of those treatments, plaintiff introduced evidence from an expert who was a “registered nurse with certification in the field of life care planning.” While defendant argued on appeal that the life care planner had “very little medical training and by no means [was] a medical expert,” the Court pointed out that defendant did not object to this witness being called as an expert witness at trial. Because defendant failed to contemporaneously object at trial and failed to identify objectionable portions of this witness’s testimony in its motion for new trial, any objection to his testimony was deemed as waived. The jury’s award for future medical expenses, which was less than the amount testified to by the life care expert, was thus supported by material evidence.
For the loss of earning capacity award, plaintiff used several witnesses to establish his differing abilities before and after the accident. He also introduced a vocational expert (to whom defendant did not object at trial) and a second expert, who both provided similar ranges of lost earning capacity. The final award by the jury was slightly lower than either of these two ranges, which the Court ruled was “well within the range of reasonableness based on the material evidence adduced at trial.”
Finally, defendant objected to the way the loss of consortium award was written on the jury form. Because defendant did not raise this objection at trial or in its motion for new trial, however, it was deemed waived.
Because there was material evidence to support the jury’s verdict, the award was affirmed.Jury verdicts are reviewed using the material evidence standard, which is a relatively low standard to meet. As this case reminds us, an appellate court will not reweigh contradictory evidence or overturn credibility determinations when reviewing a jury verdict under this standard.
This opinion was released 3.5 months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 25, Section 10 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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