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Chad Lawler v. Laidlaw Carriers Flatbed Gp

June 26, 2012

CHAD LAWLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LAIDLAW CARRIERS FLATBED GP, INC. ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Tucker, J.

MEMORANDUM

June___, 2012

Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for New Trial and Motion for Remittitur (Docs. 60, 67), Plaintiff's Response thereto (Docs. 61, 68), and all accompanying briefs and relevant correspondence. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Chad Lawler ("Lawler"), a Pennsylvania resident and former laborer for Dedicated Management Group, brought this personal injury action against: (1) Defendant Contrans Income Fund d/b/a Laidlaw Carriers Flatbed GP, Inc., a Canadian corporation ("Laidlaw"); (2) Bogdan Mulak, a Canadian citizen (collectively, "Defendants"); and (3) Patricia Bottomley.*fn1 Plaintiff alleged that he sustained bodily injury caused by a motor vehicle accident for which Defendants were responsible.

On March 19, 2008, Plaintiff Lawler, age 19, was involved in a three car automobile collision while he was on duty as an employee of Dedicated Management Group. On that day, Plaintiff was riding as a passenger in a 2004 International Harvester Tractor traveling northbound on Interstate 95 in Chester Township. When the driver of the tractor transporting the Plaintiff slowed down due to traffic conditions, a white 2000 Volvo semi-trailer directly behind the tractor failed to stop in time and collided with the tractor. The Defendant driver of the Volvo semi-trailer, Bogdan Mulak, was working as an agent within the scope of his employment for Defendant Laidlaw at the time of the collision.

Immediately after the tractor in which Plaintiff was riding was hit by the Volvo semi-trailer, the Dodge Caravan directly behind the Volvo semi-trailer, driven by Defendant Patricia Bottomley, rear-ended the semi-trailer, which in turn caused the semi-trailer to rear-end the tractor a second time.

Plaintiff claimed that as a result of the collisions, both caused by the Defendants' negligence, Plaintiff suffered great loss, pain and suffering, which prevented him from continuing to work as a laborer at a rate of $450.00 per week. Plaintiff also claimed that his activities of daily living were restricted, and that he has incurred, and would incur in the future, increased medical bills due to health complications as a result of the collision. Due to his injuries, Plaintiff's neurosurgeon recommended, and Plaintiff underwent, a surgical cervical discectomy and fusion.

Plaintiff sought relief in the form of damages in excess of $150,000.00, separately from Defendants and from Bottomley. This requested amount included, but was not limited to lost earnings and earning power, actual damages, as well as damages for pain and suffering.

Plaintiff's claims were based on the theory of negligence.

Two weeks prior to trial, in their Pretrial Memorandum, Defendants admitted liability for the negligence of driver, Defendant Mulak, and conceded that there was no contributory negligence on the part of Plaintiff Lawler. (Doc. 27). A few days prior to trial, on July 25, 2011, Plaintiff submitted a case summary announcing that punitive damages were being sought (Doc. 34). Additionally, on July 28, 2011, Plaintiff filed proposed jury charges, which included proposed instructions on punitive damages. (Doc. 39). Plaintiff's Complaint failed to include a claim for punitive damages.

Starting August 1, 2011, a four day jury trial was held before this Court. On August 5, 2011, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff, awarding a total amount of $2,761,791.00 in damages. On August 15, 2011, Defendants moved for a New Trial or Remittitur, and subsequently filed their supporting Memorandum of Law on November 15, 2011. (Doc. 67).

LEGAL STANDARDS

A court may grant a new trial "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." FED. R. CIV. P. 59(a)(1)(A). Generally, a court will order a new trial: (1) when the jury's verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, and a new trial must be granted to prevent a miscarriage of justice; (2) when improper conduct by an attorney or the court unfairly influenced the verdict; (3) when the jury verdict was facially inconsistent; or (4) where a verdict is so grossly excessive or inadequate "as to shock the conscience." Suarez v. Mattingly, 212 F. Supp. 2d 350, 352 (D.N.J. 2002) (citations omitted). Determining whether to grant a new trial is within the sound discretion of the trial court. Wagner v. Fair Acres Geriatric Ctr, 49 F.3d 1002, 1017 (3d Cir. 1995).

When determining whether to order a new trial after a jury trial, the court should only do so if "the verdict was against the weight of the evidence ... [and] a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand." Williamson v. Conrail, 926 F.2d 1344, 1352 (3d Cir. 1991). The granting or refusal of a new trial because of excessiveness is within the discretion of this Court. Robert v. Chodoff, 393 A.2d 853, 871 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1978). In general, courts will sustain jury verdicts if, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the prevailing party, there is a reasonable basis to uphold the verdict; courts will examine the record for evidence that could reasonably have led to the jury's verdict. See Nissim v. McNeil Consumer Products Co., 957 F. Supp. 600, 602-04 (E.D. Pa. 1997).

"Remittitur is justified only in limited instances...where the verdict plainly is excessive, exorbitant, and beyond what the evidence warrants, or where the verdict resulted from partiality, prejudice, mistake, or corruption." Smalls v. Pittsburgh-Corning Corp., 834 A.2d 410, 414 (Pa. Super. 2004) (citations omitted). The proper question for this Court to resolve is whether the award of damages fall within the excessive, unsupportable realm of unreasonable compensation, or whether the verdict so shocks the sense of justice as to suggest that the jury was influenced by partiality, prejudice, mistake or corruption.

Pennsylvania's Superior Court has stated six factors that are to be considered in determining whether a verdict is excessive or exorbitant in light of the evidence at trial:

(1) the severity of the injury; (2) whether the injury is manifested by objective physical evidence or whether it is only revealed by the subjective testimony; (3) whether the injury is permanent;

(4) whether the plaintiff can continue with his or her employment; (5) the size of the out-of-pocket expenses; and (6) the amount of compensation demanded in the original complaint.

Bey v. Sacks, 789 A.2d 232, 242 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2001) (citing Harding v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 620 A.2d 1185, 1193 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993)). The Superior Court also stated that "because every case is unique, the trial court should apply only those factors which are relevant to the particular case in question before determining if the verdict is excessive." Id. (citing Mineo v. Tancini, 502 A.2d 1300, 1305 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1986)).

DISCUSSION

Defendants move for a new trial, or in the alternative, remittitur. Defendants claim that the jury verdict in this matter, awarding Plaintiff a total of $2,761,791.00 in damages, including $1,500,000.00 million for Plaintiff's loss of earning potential, was both contrary to the evidence proffered at trial, and a shock to the conscience concerning justice. Further, Defendant asserts that the jury verdict was unfairly influenced due to the Court's error in: (1) denying Defendant's Motion in Limine to preclude Plaintiff's request for punitive damages, or alternatively, failing to sever or hold in abeyance Plaintiff's claim for punitive damages; (2) permitting the introduction into evidence of the Laidlaw Safety Report; and (3) failing to grant defense counsel's request for a mistrial after Plaintiff's counsel, during its closing statement, suggested a general amount of recovery to the jury.

Moreover, Defendant Laidlaw contends that remittitur will not cure the prejudice to Defendants caused by Plaintiff's improper and unsupported arguments of Defendants' willful, reckless conduct. However, in the absence of a Court finding that a new trial is appropriate, Defendants request alternatively that this Court recommend remittitur due to the excessiveness of the damages awarded for lost earnings, and the apparent prejudice which swayed the jury and resulted in such an excessive award. Lastly, Defendants request that if the Court should decline to recommend remittitur, that the Court issue a new proceeding on the issues of damages for future lost earnings.

A. Motion for New Trial

In support of its motion for new trial, Defendants note that the Supreme Court has strongly intimated that common law and statutory procedures surrounding punitive damages claims, particularly in civil cases, are somewhat imprecise in being administered. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 417 (2003). With that, Defendants submit arguments on three of the four prongs of the standard under which this Court may evaluate a motion for a new trial: (1) the clear weight of the evidence failed to support the jury verdict, requiring a new trial in the interest of justice; (2) the Court erred during trial, which unfairly influenced the ...


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