Taking an accident or personal injury case to trial is a challenging proposition, and requires expertise and careful preparation. But as the Chicago personal injury attorneys of Passen & Powell are aware, even the best-prepared attorney can face occasional injustice at trial. A recent opinion from the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth District, confirms the responsibility of trial judges to correct the problem when a jury veers off course, and to protect the rights of injured plaintiffs.
In Anderson v. Zamir, the trial court was faced with a case stemming from a rear-end car accident. The plaintiff, Tiffany Anderson, was a college student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale when her car was struck by defendant Saadia Zamir. The force of the impact caused Ms. Anderson’s head to strike the steering wheel, and caused her car to strike the vehicle in front of her.
Ms. Anderson was initially diagnosed with a soft-tissue spinal injury. After about a year of treatment, including diagnostic testing, medication and physical therapy, her cervical condition was sufficiently improved to allow her to increase her activities, but led her to recognize significant pain in her left shoulder. Only then was she diagnosed with a tear in the labrum of her left shoulder, which required surgery. She had arthroscopic surgery to reattach the labrum to the bone, then underwent additional treatment and physical therapy to restore as much movement as possible.
At trial, the only issue presented to the jury was damages: the defendant admitted liability for the accident. The defendant argued, however, that she should not be responsible for damages resulting from the shoulder injury, but instead should pay only for the spinal damage. The jury apparently accepted this argument, as Ms. Anderson presented medical bills totaling $28,804, but the jury only awarded her medical damages of $5,000 (plus $7,500 for pain and suffering).
This award was thus directly contrary to the evidence presented at trial. Not only did Ms. Anderson present her medical bills, but she also introduced the testimony of her two treating physicians. Both physicians testified that her shoulder injury was proximately caused by the automobile accident, and that the delay in discovering the torn labrum was normal due to the nature of the injury and its combination with the spinal injury. Finally, both physicians also testified that they reviewed her records and history and that there was no possible cause for the shoulder injury other than the car accident. Although defendant cross examined the physicians, neither wavered in his opinion that the accident was the cause of Ms. Anderson’s shoulder injury, and there was no showing of bias in their testimony.
Defendant introduced no evidence, choosing instead to rest on her cross-examinations. After the jury verdict — awarding plaintiff basically nothing for her injuries – Ms. Anderson moved for a new trial. That motion was denied, and Ms. Anderson appealed. Our Chicago accident attorneys applaud both Ms. Anderson and her counsel for not taking the easy way out, and pressing forward with an appeal to ensure that Ms. Anderson was fully compensated.
On appeal, the appellate court noted that although a jury award is entitled to substantial deference, that deference does have its limits. Under Illinois law “a jury’s damages award cannot be overturned unless it is shown that the jury clearly ignored an established element of damages, that the verdict was the result of passion or prejudice, or that the award bears no reasonable relationship to the loss that was suffered.” In this case, that is precisely what happened – the $5,000 awarded bore no reasonable relationship to Ms. Anderson’s nearly $30,000 in medical expenses, and other non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering and loss of normal life.
As the defendant presented no evidence in support of its theory of causation, the only way the jury could have accepted the defendant’s theory is if it discredited the testimony of Ms. Anderson’s two treating physicians. As the court noted, however, in Illinois a jury may only discredit a witness based upon “all of the other evidence or the inherent improbability or contradictions in the testimony.” The jury thus may not disregard witness testimony unless it is inherently improbable, directly contradicted by other testimony, or the witness has been impeached.
In Ms. Anderson’s case, none of those things occurred. The uncontradicted, unimpeached, rationally-based evidence all stated that Ms. Anderson’s shoulder injury was caused by the auto accident, for which defendants has admitted liability. The jury was not permitted to disregard that evidence, and its verdict therefore bore no “reasonable relationship” to the injuries suffered.
The Appellate Court of Illinois for the Fifth District thus correctly reversed the trial court, and remanded the matter for a new trial on Ms. Anderson’s damages. Although this opinion was obviously legally correct, it was nonetheless courageous. Judges, both trial and appellate, have every incentive to simply let stand the jury’s award, even if it is as outrageous as what occurred here. The unusual step of overturning a jury verdict always raises eyebrows, and is never done lightly. But it must be done, or victims such as Ms. Anderson will not be compensated for their loss.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago personal injury lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.