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Tennessee Court Denies Additur in Wrongful Death Case

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All individuals have the constitutional right to have a jury hear their claims. This means that a jury, in addition to a judge, will listen to the facts of the case and determine whether the defendant should be found liable for his or her actions, and what amount of damages, if any, should be awarded. Even in a jury trial, however, the judge plays an important role as a “13th juror” who reviews the outcome of the case and determines whether serious errors have occurred or if the jury’s findings are inconsistent with the evidence presented in the case. In this way, the judge makes sure that the jury has not completely misunderstood the facts presented to them, or reached a biased conclusion.

Where a judge believes that a jury has ruled correctly, but has failed to accurate account for the plaintiff’s damages, in light of the evidence presented, the judge has the option of additur or remittitur. Additur is the process of adding to the jury’s verdict to create an award that better reflects the facts presented in the case, while remittitur allows the judge to reduce the award for the same reason. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looked at when additur is and is not appropriate in a jury trial.

In this Tennessee wrongful death case, S.W.’s husband, J.W. was admitted to the hospital for severe pain related to kidney stones. Doctors gave him a patient controlled pain pump, which allowed him to administer morphine to himself as needed. While at the hospital J.W. was instructed to give himself morphine at certain intervals as needed. The nurses also instructed S.W. to administer the pain pump on occasion at night while J.W. was sleeping in order to “stay ahead of the pain.” J.W. was later discharged from the hospital and went home with his pain pump. He continued to use it and his wife also gave him several doses throughout the evening. The morning after, S.W. awoke to find J.W. unresponsive. She immediately called an ambulance but J.W. had already suffered serious brain damage as a result of morphine induced respiratory failure. He eventually passed away and S.W. sued for his death and wrongful death benefits.

Ultimately, the jury found the hospital 51% liable for J.W.’s death and S.W. 49% liable. It then awarded S.W. $300,000 in lost income as a result of her husband’s death, but awarded her nothing for loss of consortium. S.W. then moved for a new trial or, in the alternative, additur. The trial court issued an order finding that the jury’s award was inadequate to compensate S.W. for her injuries and adding approximately one million dollars to the award, including $300,000 in damages for loss of consortium. The hospital then appealed the additur.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that judges have the authority to engage in additur and increase a jury award, but that the additur must be evaluated according to a three step process. First, the appeals court must make sure that the additur is supported by adequate justification from the trial court. Second, the appeals court must make sure that the additur does not “totally destroy” the jury’s award. Third, the appeals court must evaluate whether the evidence presented at trial supports the change.

Here, the appeals court found that the trial court’s order provided a clear explanation for the basis for the changes and adequate justification. However, the appeals court ruled that the judge’s additur amounted to a “total destruction” of the jury’s award because it so grossly changed the nature of the award. While the appeals court noted that prior decisions have allowed judges to increase a jury’s award by two, three, or four-fold, it found in those cases the total award had been far less and the change was not nearly as significant as the change in J.W.’s case. Additionally, the appeals court noted that the lower court had added an entirely new category of damages for loss of consortium. In light of these changes, the appeals court struck down the additur.

If you are involved in a case where you believe the damages award is too small, or too large, you should consult with an attorney to determine your options for post-trial relief, including additur. While these legal tools are very powerful, they must also be used carefully. Trial-tested wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley has faced hundreds of juries in his career and knows when a request for additur or remittitur may be appropriate. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Supreme Court Addresses Who Is Entitled to Wrongful Death Settlement, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 22, 2017.

Tennessee Court Reverses Summary Judgment Based on Comparative Fault, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 13, 2017.

Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Wrongful Death Statute, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 8, 2017.