The defendant appealed from a judgment entered after a jury verdict in a Michigan premises liability action. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the trial judge’s denial of the defendant’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The appeals court also affirmed the trial judge’s denial of the defendant’s motion for a new trial as to damages with the exception of those based upon past and future medical expenses.
While shopping at the defendant’s store, the plaintiff asked for assistance with some folding metal chairs that were located on a top shelf. An employee attempted to manipulate that stack of chairs, and they fell from the top shelf onto the plaintiff’s head. The plaintiff sued the defendant’s corporation, which, though it contested fault, did not contest that if the jury found its employee at fault, it would be liable under respondeat superior.
On appeal, the defendant first contended that the trial court erred by denying its motion for a directed verdict, in which it claimed that it had no duty to the plaintiff, based on the open and obvious danger doctrine. The appeals court agreed with the trial court that this motion was properly denied on both procedural and substantive grounds.
The appeals court concluded that the defendant waived any claim that the action did not sound in negligence. Early in the case, the trial court issued an order providing that once a formal Joint Final Pretrial Order (JFPO) is filed, it supersedes previous pleadings and orders and controls the trial proceedings. It further provided that the JFPO shall contain a concise statement of a defendant’s defenses and cross-claims, including legal theories. A JFPO was presented to the court by the parties and entered as an order. Under the heading “Defendant’s Claims,” the defendant listed multiple defenses but included no reference to premises liability or a defense that the plaintiff’s injury was caused by an open and obvious condition. Given the court’s pre-trial orders and the JFPO to which defense counsel stipulated, the defendant waived this argument.
The appeals court held that the trial court also properly ruled that even if it were to consider the merits of the directed verdict motion, it would fail because the plaintiff’s claims arose out of the conduct of the defendant’s employee who attempted to manipulate the chairs on the shelf and caused them to fall onto the plaintiff. Although there was some evidence and argument at trial related to the condition of the shelves, the appeals court held, the focus of the plaintiff’s claims was that the employee was negligent in shuffling through the chairs, causing them to fall. The trial court therefore did not err by ruling that the plaintiff’s claim sounded in ordinary negligence.
The defendant next contended that the jury’s verdict was excessive and not supported by the record, and it requested either a new trial as to damages or an order of remittitur. The jury was instructed to consider six types of damages, and it determined the amounts for each: (1) past economic damages for medical expenses ($25,000), (2) future economic damages for medical expenses ($2,068,000), (3) past economic damages for lost earning capacity or wages ($250,000), (4) future economic damages for lost earning capacity or wages ($806,000), (5) past noneconomic damages for pain and suffering ($250,000), and (6) future noneconomic damages for pain and suffering ($1,217,000). The defendant did not challenge the awards for past economic damages for lost earnings or past noneconomic damages for pain and suffering.
Regarding the medical expenses for lost earning capacity or wages, the evidence at trial was limited to documents showing the amount of the plaintiff’s health insurer’s lien and the plaintiff’s out-of-pocket costs for health services to the date of trial. The defendant argued that the total of past medical expenses as shown by the evidence was $22,508, and the appeals court agreed. Since there was no evidence of additional expenditures, the appeals court found the award was excessive. On remand, the appeals court held, the trial court shall grant remittitur as to the award for past medical damages in order to lower the award for past medical expenses to $22,508.
Regarding future economic damages, the plaintiff’s economic expert testified as to the significant reduction in her pension, which would carry forward through the rest of her life. He estimated that the plaintiff would have lost a total of $900,664 for lost earnings and lost pension benefits. The jury awarded a total of $806,000, which is less than the amount of loss that he calculated. Given that the figure was well below the most the evidence would have supported, the appeals court concluded that the total award was reasonable despite the defendant’s concern about the way in which the jury structured the calculation of that sum.
Regarding future economic damages for medical expenses, the appeals court agreed with the defendant that the award was clearly excessive because it bore little, if any, relationship to the expected future treatment described in the testimony. The plaintiff’s expert’s testimony supported, at most, $372,000 in future medical expenses, and plaintiff’s counsel only suggested an award of $250,000.
The court affirmed the judgment in all other respects.
The premises liability attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent people 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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