Damage Award Not Guaranteed Where Jury Finds Negligence and Causation (PA)
The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently affirmed a jury award of no damages in a three car auto accident case where the jury found one of the defendants negligent and the factual cause of the alleged injuries. See Felder v. Kukuyev, et al., 2020 WL 7780060, No. 920 EDA 2020 (Pa. Super. Ct. Dec. 30, 2020). In Felder, the Plaintiffs sought to recover non-economic damages (i.e. pain and suffering) allegedly sustained when the Felder vehicle was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by Defendant Kukuyev. Kukuyev asserted a claim against Capriotti alleging that Capriotti rear-ended Kukuyev causing Kukuyev’s vehicle to strike the Felder vehicle. The jury returned a verdict for the Felders and against Kukuyev, but awarded no damages. The verdict form indicated that the jury found Capriotti negligent, but not the factual cause of the harm. Felders’ post trial motion seeking a new trial on damages was denied and the Felders appealed.
The Felders asserted two issues on appeal. First, that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury based on model jury instruction 7.60. Second, the Felders allege that the trial court erred in refusing to grant a new trial because the failure to award damages was against the manifest weight of the evidence. As forth in greater detail below, the Superior Court disagreed on both points and affirmed the jury verdict.
Pennsylvania’s Standard Suggested Jury Instructions are a model for the trial courts, but courts are not required to utilize the instructions. In this case, the trial court instructed the jury on factual cause generally, but declined to include an instruction mandating a damage award if the jury concludes either defendant was both negligent and a factual cause of the alleged injury. Appeals based on purportedly inaccurate or confusing jury instructions pose unique challenges in that the appellate courts will not disturb a verdict if the instruction “clearly, adequately and accurately reflects the law.” See e.g. Com. v. Smith, 956 a.2d 1029, 1035-35 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2008). Thus, the question presented on appeal was whether the trial court’s instruction adequately and accurately reflected Pennsylvania law.
According to the Felders, the instruction did not comport with Pennsylvania law in that it permitted the jury to find a defendant negligent and a factual cause of the harm and yet award no damages. The Felders suggested that such an instruction was required where the medical experts agreed the plaintiffs suffered some harm. The Superior Court disagreed, reasoning that a “jury may deny damages on the basis that the injury was not serious enough to warrant compensation.” (quoting Andrews v. Jackson, 800 A.2d 959, 965 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002). The court continued:
Once a jury finds causation, it is then free to determine the amount of damages, if any, a plaintiff suffered. A jury that finds causation is not required to award non-economic damages in every case. A jury is free to believe that the plaintiff did not suffer any pain and suffering or that a preexisting condition or injury was the sole cause of the alleged pain and suffering. A jury cannot disregard and obvious injury, but it is not obliged to find that every injury causes pain or the pain alleged.
Felder at p. 5 (internal citations omitted).
The Felders’ assertion that the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence warranting a new trial was similarly flawed. The Felders made much of the findings of the competing expert reports, arguing that damages must be awarded because both experts found injuries related to the accident. However, the Felders fail to consider the actual injuries at issue. The injuries alleged were merely sprains and strains which fully resolved. Moreover, the Felders fail to consider the impact of both prior and subsequent accidents involving injuries to the same parts. The evidence revealed Darlea Felder sustained injuries to her low back and legs in an automobile accident four months prior to the accident at issue. In fact, she was still treating for those injuries at the time of this accident. The jury also heard about two subsequent accidents in which Illene Felder sustained low back injuries. Thus, the Court held, the record contained sufficient evidence to support the verdict because this case was nothing more than a minor rear-end collision.
The lesson from Felder is simple: a jury may ultimately determine that the injuries are not serious enough to award compensation.
Thanks to Jennifer Seme for her contribution to this post. Please contact Heather Aquino with any questions.