After a jury trial, the court entered a $14,439.91 judgment for plaintiff Molly Pietila following a ski accident with Kent Wisotzke. Pietila appealed, claiming that the trial court erred when it denied her a new trial on the issue of non-economic damages. The Michigan Court of Appeals recently reversed and remanded.
The evidence at trial showed that Pietila and Wisotzke collided on Marquette Mountain. Both suffered injuries. Wisotzke experienced a severe concussion and two broken bones in his right hand. Pietila was hospitalized for almost two weeks for multiple fractures of her eye socket, face, and skull. The plaintiff also broke her jaw, nose, knee, and hand. Her nose was entirely flattened, and she underwent multiple surgeries to reconstruct her face.
Both Pietila and her doctor testified that the plaintiff lost the ability to smell, had a decreased ability to taste food, suffered from on-going double vision, and experienced some clicking and limited mobility in her jaw. At trial, the defendant contested liability, but he did not challenge the nature or extent of the plaintiff’s injuries. The parties stipulated that the plaintiff’s past medical expenses were $28,879.93. While finding the defendant was 50% negligent for the injury to Pietila, the jury declined to award her either economic or noneconomic damages. Pursuant to Pietila’s motion for a new trial or additur, the trial court found that the verdict as to economic damages was against the great weight of the evidence. The court accepted the parties’ stipulation as to the $28,879.93 of Pietila’s medical expenses. Conversely, the court found that the jury’s decision to award no noneconomic damages was not against the great weight of the evidence. Thus, the only issue on appeal was whether the court abused its discretion in failing to afford the plaintiff relief from the jury’s failure to award noneconomic damages.
Pietila argued on appeal that this case should be remanded for a new trial on the issue of noneconomic damages for two reasons. First, the inadequate amount of noneconomic damages was evidence that the jury was influenced by passion or prejudice. Second, the jury’s decision to award no noneconomic damages was grossly inadequate and against the great weight of the evidence. While the appeals court rejected Pietila’s first reason, it agreed with the second reason and accordingly reversed and remanded.
The appeals court explained that Pietila identified no evidence of passion or prejudice apart from the verdict, and there was no indication in the record that the jury’s verdict was influenced by passion or prejudice, such that a new trial was justified.
However, the court held, the evidence presented would have supported an award of damages for past noneconomic damages. The uncontroverted evidence was that Pietila was hospitalized for almost two weeks, underwent extensive facial reconstruction and eye surgery, and had multiple follow-up surgeries. She testified that her injuries and the surgeries caused her pain. She also testified that she did not return to her high school classroom for the remainder of her junior year following the incident, at least in part because she did not want her appearance to “gross” people out. Even after she recovered from follow-up surgeries, her physical ailments persisted to a certain extent. She never regained her sense of smell. Her ability to taste food remains negatively affected. Double vision still occurs in her right eye when she looks in certain directions. Her right eye will begin to water on occasion, and she will wake up with crustiness around her eye due to the leakage. She lost a front tooth. Also, her jaw clicks, and she cannot open it as wide as she could previously.
Pietila, the court explained, sought noneconomic damages not just for pain and suffering but also for loss of social pleasure and enjoyment and for the impairment of her body. Aside from the pain and suffering portion of noneconomic damages presented to the jury, Pietila also argued for damages related to physical impairments. The jury had no evidentiary basis to believe that the impairments of her jaw and eye, both of which were supported by a physician’s testimony, were not caused by the accident. Nor was there any evidence in the record that Pietila was not denied social pleasures and enjoyments during her hospitalization and physician-mandated convalescent period. For these reasons, the court held that the verdict, if it were interpreted as a denial that those injuries occurred or were related to the accident, was against the great weight of the evidence. For the same reasons, the appeals court concluded that the verdict was also grossly inadequate. Specifically, the court held, it was grossly inadequate to award nothing for either the impairments of the body or the physician-mandated convalescence and hospitalization period.
Thus, the appeals court reversed the trial court’s order denying the plaintiff noneconomic damages and remanded to the trial court for a new trial limited to determining noneconomic damages.
The personal injury attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.
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