The South Carolina Supreme Court recently reinstated a trial judge’s decision to impose a nisi additur of damages in a product liability lawsuit stemming from a wrongful death involving a defective vehicle door latch system.
Decedent was a prominent fixture in his South Carolina community. He was the county sheriff, a church deacon, a husband and father of five children. The other driver was a 16-year-old student on his way home from school.
According to court records in Riley v. Ford Motor Co., the teen pulled out in front of the off-duty sheriff, who was driving in a Ford pickup truck. The sheriff swerved in an attempt to avoid striking the teen’s vehicle, but a collision occurred anyway. The impact of the crash caused the driver door of the sheriff’s pickup truck to swing open, and the truck went careening into a nearby tree. The sheriff was ejected from the vehicle and died soon thereafter.
Decedent’s widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of herself and her children against both the teen driver and the vehicle manufacturer. Plaintiff alleged the teen was negligent for failing to yield the right-of-way, while the vehicle manufacturer was liable for the defective design of the door-latch system in the truck, which allowed the door to open upon impact. She asserted her husband likely would not have died if he hadn’t been ejected from the vehicle, and he wouldn’t have been ejected if the door had not come open.
Prior to the wrongful death trial, plaintiff settled with the teen defendant for $25,000. The case against the vehicle manufacturer pressed forward.
At trial, plaintiffs presented evidence the decedent had suffered conscious pain and suffering. The jury ultimately sided with plaintiff, awarding $300,000 in actual damages. However, although jurors determined the conduct of the vehicle manufacturer rose to the level of reckless, willful or wanton, jurors declined to award punitive damages.
Plaintiff requested from the court a nisi additur. This is when the trial court increases a jury’s damage award which it has deemed to be excessively low. From the court’s perspective, it’s a means of avoiding a retrial where damages may be so low as to equal a miscarriage of justice. The court granted it in this case, tacking on an additional $600,000 to the damage award, bringing the total amount to $900,000.
Vehicle manufacturer appealed.
The case first went to the court of appeals, which reversed. That court stated the trial court’s mere disagreement with jurors regarding the determination of proper damage isn’t compelling enough reason to initiate a nisi additur. Although appellate court conceded the $300,000 damage amount was only slightly more than the plaintiff’s economic damages – despite extensive and compelling evidence of non-economic damages – that the trial judge’s decision was an invasion of the jury’s authority.
The state supreme court disagreed, and reinstated the trial court’s ruling. In its review, the state supreme court noted that there was a decision by the judge at one point to find the evidence of non-economic damages so compelling and pervasive as to be “cumulative,” meaning there was debate about whether to allow additional witnesses to further testify to decedent’s character. Trial judge had stated during an in camera discussion that in his many years of service – both as a judge and a lawyer – he could recall no other case where so many people gave such glowing, genuine testimony about someone’s life and service. It was in light of this that the judge granted the nisi additur after the jury’s damage award seemingly failed to take this into consideration.
State supreme court noted that while appellate court had reviewed this decision de novo, it should have been reviewed for abuse of discretion. In this case, judge did not abuse his discretion in increasing the total damage award.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Riley v. Ford Motor Co., Sept. 30, 2015, South Carolina Supreme Court
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