One Million Dollar Additur Determined to Destroy Verdict

When an additur changed a jury verdict from $300,000 to over $1.3 million, the Court of Appeals ruled that it destroyed the jury’s verdict.

In Walton v. Tullahoma HMA, LLC, No. M2017-01366-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 7, 2018), plaintiff brought a health care liability and wrongful death claim after her husband died while in defendant’s hospital being treated for kidney stones. According to plaintiff, her husband was put on a pain pump to self-administer morphine, and she was told to press the button while he slept, which she did. The husband coded the following morning, suffered brain damage, and was eventually taken off life support.

Plaintiff filed this HCLA/ wrongful death suit, seeking medical expenses, the pecuniary value of husband’s life, and damages for a loss of consortium claim. Defendant hospital answered and asserted that plaintiff was comparatively at fault for administering the pain medication to her husband. After a trial, a jury found defendant 51% at fault and plaintiff 49% at fault, and determined that the total damages were $300,000, which included “$300,000 for loss of earning capacity and $0 for loss of consortium.”

Upon plaintiff’s motion, the trial judge ruled that “the jury’s damages award was inadequate to compensate the Plaintiff.” The trial judge ordered an additur of $1,061,042.71, “including $300,000 in damages for loss of consortium,” which brought the total award to over $1.3 million. Defendant accepted the additur under protest, and this appeal followed.

When a judge agrees with a jury’s finding of fault but believes the “verdict is not adequate to compensate the plaintiff…, the trial judge may suggest an additur in such amount…as the trial judge deems proper to the compensatory or punitive damages awarded by the jury[.]” (quoting Tennessee Code Annotated Section 20-10-101(a)(1)). If an additur is appealed, the Court of Appeals is tasked with determining “whether the trial court’s adjustments were justified, giving due credit to the jury’s decision regarding the credibility of the witnesses and due deference to the trial court’s prerogatives as thirteenth juror.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). To review an additur, an appellate court follows three steps:

First, we examine the reasons for the trial court’s action since adjustments are proper only when the court disagrees with the amount of the verdict. Second, we examine the amount of the suggested adjustment since adjustments that “totally destroy” the jury’s verdict are impermissible. Third, we review the proof of damages to determine whether the evidence preponderates against the trial court’s adjustment.

(internal citation omitted).

In this case, the analysis focused on the second step, the amount of the adjustment. While the court acknowledged that past cases would tend to indicate that “an additur of around two to four times the jury’s verdict would perhaps be permissible,” it also noted that the analysis was not strictly about ratios. It also pointed out that “verdicts of relatively small amounts of money might be granted additurs or remittiturs of greater percentages than verdicts of relatively large amounts.” (internal citation and quotation omitted).

Here, the Court ultimately found that the additur totally destroyed the verdict. The Court reasoned:

[T]he suggested additur adjustment was over a million dollars… This included over $300,000 in damages for loss of consortium, which had originally been determined to be $0 by the jury. …In our opinion, the suggested additur in this case was so large that the resulting judgment bears no meaningful relationship to the original jury verdict. A judgment for $1,361,042.47 is a significant one, and in our view, it is one that is substantially and qualitatively different than a verdict for $300,000. It is simply of a different ilk, and as such, we are of the opinion that the suggested additur adjustment of over a million dollars totally destroyed the jury’s verdict.

Accordingly, the verdict was vacated and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Additurs and remittiturs, both at the trial court and appellate level, can seem quite subjective. Anyone defending or trying to vacate one on appeal would be wise to read this opinion.