In Walker v. Kelley, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District recently upheld a jury verdict awarding $1.00 to a personal injury plaintiff.
The case involved a garden variety rear-end car accident which occurred in 2009. Following the accident, plaintiff received a few rounds of routine medical treatment, and did not receive any additional treatment until the eve of trial in September 2015. At trial, there was evidence that plaintiff had performed numerous physical jobs since the date of his injury, that he had a pre-existing back condition, and that he had visited a chiropractor for back pain prior to the accident. A joint trial exhibit set forth two different amounts of medical bills – the “amount incurred with a total sum of $25,895.97,” and the “amount necessary to satisfy plaintiff’s obligation for medical with a total sum of $11,279.62.”
During opening and closing, counsel for defendant argued to the jury that the $11,279.62 had been “incurred and resolved.” And on cross examination, defense counsel asked plaintiff if the $11,279.62 had been paid, to which plaintiff responded yes. Counsel for plaintiff never posed an objection to any of this, despite the obvious implications for collateral source issues.
During deliberations, the jury first asked the court how the medical bills were paid, to which the court responded with the standard admonition that it was to be guided by the evidence. Not long thereafter, the jury sent another question to the judge, this time asking whether it could “find for the plaintiff and not award money.” The court sent back another standard admonition, telling the jury that it must be guided by the instructions. After some further hiccups, including a finding of liability and an award of $0.00, the jury finally returned with a verdict in favor of plaintiff, assessing damages at $1.00. The court accepted the jury’s verdict and entered judgment. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the award of $1.00 demonstrated juror bias, passion, misconduct or prejudice.
The court of appeals affirmed the circuit court’s judgment for two reasons. First, there was evidence from which the jury could find that plaintiff’s damages were “negligible,” i.e. that there was evidence from which the jury could conclude that plaintiff’s alleged injuries were due to pre-existing conditions, or simply weren’t that bad. Second, the jury could have found that plaintiff was “fairly and reasonably compensated,” i.e. that it had based its decision upon the un-objected to collateral source evidence.
There are two lessons to take from this case. First, if defense attorneys cover all of their bases and give the jury enough evidence to hang its hat on, a nominal award of damages can survive on appeal despite a finding of liability. Second, be careful to avoid collateral source issues when talking about the amount of medical billing under R.S.Mo. 490.715. It is clear that the appellate court thought this was a big issue. Had plaintiff’s counsel objected during trial, it seems likely that defense counsel’s good work would have been undone.