On October 7, 2019, the Supreme Court of Georgia (“Georgia Supreme Court”) affirmed a medical malpractice verdict in favor of the plaintiff stroke victim where the jury found in her favor and awarded $1,196,288.97 for past medical expenses, but awarded her zero damages for future medical expenses, zero damages for past and future lost wages, and zero damages for past and future pain and suffering (the jury also awarded her husband $67,555 in damages for his loss of consortium).
The jury determined that the defendant hospital was 51% at fault and the plaintiff was 49% at fault. The trial court reduced the amount of damages awarded by the jury in proportion to the percentages of fault and entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and against the hospital in the amount of $586,191.60 for past medical expenses and $33,101.95 for loss of consortium.
The plaintiffs filed a motion for additur or for a new trial on the ground that the jury’s award of damages against the defendant hospital was so clearly inadequate as to be inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence. The plaintiffs contended that any new trial ordered by the trial court should be limited to the issue of damages. The defendant hospital opposed the motion, contending that the jury’s damages award should not be disturbed and that any retrial could not be limited to the issue of damages because the case involved comparative negligence. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for additur or a new trial on damages, and the plaintiffs subsequently appealed.
The Georgia Court of Appeals concluded that the jury’s award of zero damages for the plaintiff’s past pain and suffering was “so clearly inadequate under a preponderance of the evidence as to shock the conscience and necessitate a new trial under OCGA § 51-12-12 (b).”
OCGA § 51-12-12
OCGA § 51-12-12 (a) provides: “The question of damages is ordinarily one for the jury; and the court should not interfere with the jury’s verdict unless the damages awarded by the jury are clearly so inadequate or so excessive as to be inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence in the case.” In such instances, subsection (b) provides, “the trial court may order a new trial as to damages only, as to any or all parties, or may condition the grant of such a new trial upon any party’s refusal to accept an amount determined by the trial court.”
Georgia Supreme Court Opinion
The Georgia Supreme Court stated that OCGA § 51-12-12 allows the trial court to interfere with a jury verdict in two opposite situations – where the award is so inadequate or so excessive as to be contrary to the preponderance of the evidence. Moreover, an excessive or inadequate verdict is a mistake of fact rather than of law and addresses itself to the discretion of the trial judge, who, like the jury, saw the witnesses and heard the testimony. In fact, the trial court’s approval of the verdict creates a presumption of correctness which is not to be disturbed absent compelling evidence.
The Georgia Supreme Court stated that by its plain text, OCGA § 51-12-12 pertains only to the discretion of the trial court. Under this framework, the trial court is authorized to review an award and to determine whether the damages awarded were within the range authorized by a preponderance of the evidence, and appellate review is confined to the question of whether the trial court abused its discretion in deciding the motion for new trial on this ground. A trial court abuses its discretion when the exercise of discretion was infected by a significant legal error or a clear error as to a material factual finding.
The Georgia Supreme Court further stated that an appellate court does not have the broad discretionary powers invested in trial courts to set aside verdicts, and when the trial court before whom the witnesses appeared had the opportunity of personally observing the witnesses has approved the verdict, the appellate court is without power to interfere unless it is clear from the record that the verdict of the jury was prejudiced or biased or was procured by corrupt means.
The Georgia Supreme Court held that it was therefore error for the Court of Appeals to conclude in this case that the zero damages award for past pain and suffering was clearly inadequate under a preponderance of the evidence. The Court of Appeals could not substitute its judgment for that of the trial court on the fact-based question of whether the damages awarded were within the range authorized by a preponderance of the evidence; the Court of Appeals instead should have limited its review to whether the trial court, who saw the witnesses and heard the testimony, abused its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial.
Source Rockdale Hospital, LLC v. Evans, S18G1189, S18G1190.
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