January 29th, 2019
PA Superior Court Examines Whether Jury Verdict Regarding Damages in Personal Injury Claim Can Stand
Recently, in the case of Mader v. Duquesne Light Co., the Pennsylvania Superior Court examined issues regarding a jury verdict concerning a plaintiff’s past and future medical expenses, past lost wages, and loss of earning power in a personal injury claim.
The plaintiff was a fifty-four year-old masonry contractor, who was working on a chimney, fireplace and front stoop of an existing home in Pittsburgh. After the project was completed, the customer asked the plaintiff if he could check the gutters to see if any mortar from the chimney repair had been washed into them during a recent rainstorm. The plaintiff retrieved an aluminum extension ladder to check the gutters and while carrying the ladder perpendicular to the ground, he did not notice that there were underground electrical power lines eleven feet away from the customer’s home. The ladder made contact with the power line resulting in his electrocution.
The plaintiff was taken to the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries over the course of several weeks to treat severe burn injuries to both of his arms and his feet. Ultimately, the plaintiff’s feet were amputated in the middle of the arch. Thereafter, he was transferred to a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation.
While in the hospital, the plaintiff was able to continue his masonry contracting business through his two employees. When the plaintiff resided in the skilled nursing facility, he limited his business to primarily chimney cleaning. The plaintiff filed a personal injury claim against the owner of the power line, alleging negligence in maintaining the electric lines too close to the ground. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict allocating the defendant sixty percent negligent and plaintiff forty percent negligent for his injuries. The trial court instructed the jury that if liability was found, the plaintiff was entitled to compensation for past medical expenses, past lost earnings, future lost earning capacity, past and future pain and suffering, embarrassment and humiliation, loss of ability to enjoy the pleasures of life and disfigurement. The jury awarded $444,525.56 for past medical expenses, and $55,474.44 for future medical expenses, but no compensation for past lost wages, future lost earning capacity, past and future pain and suffering/loss of enjoyment of life and/or disfigurement.
The plaintiff filed a motion requesting a new trial on the issue of damages. The defendant acknowledged that a new trial on past pain and suffering was appropriate but denied that the plaintiff was entitled to a new trial on all damages. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s request for a new trial as to all damages submitted to the jury, and the defendant appealed.
The Superior Court held that the trial court erred in ordering a new trial on the issue of past medical expenses, because those damages were stipulated to by the parties, and therefore, was controlling. The Superior Court also held that the trial court erred in granting a new trial on future medical expenses since that issue was fully developed, and the jury determined its verdict regarding future medical expenses after fully evaluating the evidence presented. Here, the jury merely favored the defendant’s evidence as more persuasive on the issue of future medical expenses, which, according to the Court, was its prerogative, and therefore, the jury’s verdict on this element of damage could not be disturbed on appeal.
With respect to the trial court’s decision to order a new trial on past wage loss and loss of future earning capacity, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant a new trial, stating that the jury’s verdict for zero damages was against the weight of the evidence. More specifically, the court determined that regarding past wage loss, it was not refuted that the plaintiff’s business lost substantial income due to the defendant’s negligence. Regarding plaintiff’s claims for future wage loss, while the Court acknowledged that the plaintiff did not do all that was necessary to mitigate his loss of earning capacity, it was uncontroverted that, due to his amputations, he would never be able to work in his former capacity. Therefore, the Court determined a jury cannot withhold damages for future loss of earnings resulting from the defendant’s negligence.
Finally, in deciding the issue of a new trial for pain and suffering, the Court reviewed two Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions. First, in Burnhauser v. Bumberger, 745 A.2d 1256, 1261 (Pa. Super. 2000), the Supreme Court held that jury verdicts awarding zero damages are against the weight of the evidence where undisputed medical evidence reveals that the plaintiff has suffered injuries in the accident that were of a type normally associated with pain and suffering. However, Davis v. Mullen, 773 A.2d 764, 767 (Pa. 2001), the Supreme Court held, “that a jury’s award of medical expenses without compensation for pain and suffering should not be disturbed where the trial court had a reasonable basis to believe that: (1) the jury did not believe the plaintiff suffered any pain and suffering, or (2) that a preexisting condition or injury was the sole cause of the alleged pain and suffering.” Here, the Superior Court opined that the trial court, based on the evidence presented during the trial, did not abuse its discretion in awarding a new trial on pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life’s pleasures and disfigurement.