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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides one today

In Debra L. Walker v. David M. Pullen, a 7-page, 5-0 opinion, Chief Justice Shepard writes:

David Pullen sought damages for injuries he suffered when Debra Walker hit him from behind in a restaurant drive-through lane. After winning a jury verdict, Pullen sought a new trial asserting that the amount of damages awarded was against the weight of the evidence. The trial court granted the motion, but its findings of fact under Trial Rule 59(J) were not sufficient to demonstrate why the jury verdict should be cast aside. We reverse and remand with instructions to reinstate the jury’s verdict. * * *

[ILB: The last section of the opinion is headed "Treading Carefully as the Thirteenth Juror." In the standard of review section, the opinion states that a decision to grant a new trial is often called "acting as the thirteen juror."]

In this case, the trial court granted a new trial because it believed the verdict did not accord with the evidence. It did not state whether the verdict was against the weight of the evidence or clearly erroneous. The court made only general findings and not the special findings required by Rule 59(J).

This case provides a prime example of why special findings are required when the judge acts as the thirteenth juror. Pullen claimed a total of $25,019.50 in damages for medical bills—$12,520 for treatment in 2004 and $12,499.50 for treatment in 2007 and 2008. The jury apparently did not agree that Walker’s negligence required all of those treatments and awarded Pullen $10,070 "for P.T. & inital [sic] medical assessment." (App. at 8.) By our count, Pullen’s expenses for physical therapy, appointments with his regular physician, and the initial x-rays following his first appointment were $10,064. After hearing all the testimony, the jury may apparently have believed these damages were the result of Walker’s negligence, and believed Walker’s medical expert that the remainder of the expenses were either unnecessary or unrelated.

The court’s statement that the evidence was "undisputed" is not a sufficient special finding to justify supplanting the jury’s verdict. The trial court’s findings do not suggest that this was an unjust result.

We reverse and remand with direction to reinstate the jury verdict.

Sullivan, Rucker, and David, JJ., concur.

Dickson J., concurs in result with separate opinion. [that concludes, at p. 7 of 7] The omission of any award for general damages undermines my confidence in the justness of the verdict.

I agree with the majority, however, that the trial court’s order granting a new trial was not compliant with the specificity requirements of Indiana Trial Rule 59(J). For this reason, I agree that the order granting a new trial must be reversed and the jury verdict reinstated.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on March 15, 2011 12:57 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions