On Tuesday the Indiana Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals’ decision that affirmed the granting of a new trial in a case involving a jury verdict that rewarded an accident victim damages for the costs of physical therapy sessions and initial medical consultations. In its opinion in Walker v. Pullen, No. 64S05-1101-CT-0006, the Supreme Court expressed the importance of a strict application of Indiana Trial Rule 56(J).
The case arose out of a car accident that occurred in the drive-through lane of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Valparaiso, Indiana, in which the defendant’s foot slipped off the brake pedal while in line and rear-ended the plaintiff’s car. Several days later, the plaintiff saw a doctor complaining of neck pain and had several treatments over the course of a few months. He wasn’t treated for neck pain again until three years later and there was conflicting testimony as to the relationship between the drive-through accident and the cause of the later pain. One expert testified that the pain could be related to the accident while another claimed that it was caused by walking on crutches after having unrelated knee surgery. The plaintiff sought damages of $25,000 and, while the jury ruled in his favor, it only awarded him just over $10,000 for “P.T. & inital [sic] medical assessment.” The plaintiff then filed a motion to correct error, citing that his physical therapy costs and medical assessments totaled $12,500. The trial court granted the motion and ordered a new trial on the issue of damages only. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Supreme Court, after granting transfer, reversed the decision and directed that the jury verdict be reinstated. The Court cited to Trial Rule 56(J), which states, “when granting a new trial because the verdict does not accord with the evidence, judges must ‘make special findings of fact upon each material issue…’” and “’[s]uch findings shall indicate whether the decision is against the weight of the evidence or whether it is clearly erroneous as contrary to or not supported by the evidence….’” The trial court in this case granted the motion for a new trial because “it believed the verdict did not accord with the evidence.” This does not comply with the high standard of the rule that the verdict be “against the weight of the evidence” or that it was “clearly erroneous.” The Court made certain to explain the importance of giving due deference to the decisions of juries in this state, stating that the “arduous and time-consuming requirements [are] to assure the public that the justice system is safe not only from capricious or malicious juries, but also from usurpation by unrestrained judges.” Thus, because the jury could have reasonably believed that the damages granted were only those that were the result of the defendant’s negligence and that the remainder of the damages were unrelated to the accident, its verdict should be reinstated as the rule of the case.