Pennsylvania Supreme Court Refuses to Implement Bright Line Rule on Defective Jury Awards
Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Mader v. Duquesne Light Company, refused to implement a bright line rule with respect to mandating a trial court’s options when a jury returns an inconsistent, favorable plaintiff verdict with an inconsistent damages award. Instead, the Court indicated that trial courts largely have broad discretion in terms of requiring new trials for damages.
As relevant here, plaintiff Mader was severely injured and electrocuted while performing masonry work at a customer’s house. Specifically, Mader was unaware of low-hanging power lines while carrying a metal ladder, and the ladder contacted the power lines. Mader eventually was required to undergo amputations of both feet and had multiple rounds or surgery on other parts of his body. Mader was unable to continue working after his injury and was forced to close his contracting business. A jury returned a favorable verdict of $500,000 in compensatory damages (including past and future medical costs) while awarding zero for past or future lost earnings and zero in noneconomic damages. The trial court ordered a new trial on past and future medical expenses primarily because it found the jury’s determination on compensatory damages for pain and suffering and lost earnings to be defective. The Supreme Court largely granted the permissive appeal to resolve the thorny issue as to whether a new trial should be awarded for all damages or just the certain damages tainted by jury error.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court installed a balancing test, holding:
“We hold that, when faced with the question of the full or partial granting of a new trial on damages, a trial court should discern whether the properly awarded damages in the first trial were ‘fairly determined,’ and, if so, whether they are sufficiently independent from, and are not ‘intertwined’ with, the erroneously determined damages.”
The Court explained that this will allow flexibility for the trial courts and would be the most “fair”, as it would both allow claimants to keep properly established damages but would also be fair to the defense bar as it will not be “required to give its opponent a second chance to recover damages that were properly established and found by the jury in the first trial, and which are otherwise independent from the erroneous damages.”
Thanks to Matt Care for his contribution to this post. If you have any questions or comments, please contact Colleen Hayes.