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Holland v. New Community Corp.

September 19, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-4118-04.

Per curiam.


Argued July 10, 2007

Before Judges R. B. Coleman and Sapp-Peterson.

Plaintiff Adolphus Holland appeals from an order of the Law Division, dated August 18, 2006, that granted the motion of defendant New Community Corporation for remittitur. As a result of that order, the July 28, 2006 judgment in favor of plaintiff was reduced from $250,210, plus interest, to $7,500. Because the August 18, 2006 order appears to reduce the amount awarded by the jury, without giving plaintiff the option to choose between the remittitur and a new trial on damages, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

Plaintiff was a tenant in an apartment building owned by defendant. Over the course of several years, plaintiff lodged numerous complaints that the refrigerator in his apartment leaked badly, but that problem was never remedied. In the early morning hours of August 10, 2003, plaintiff awakened and, without turning on the light, went to get something from the refrigerator. When he was about a foot away, he slipped on the wet floor and fell, sustaining injuries to his head, neck and back. He pressed a call button on the wall, and an ambulance was summoned. The ambulance transported him to University Hospital, where he underwent X-rays, was given medication for pain and was released.

On or about August 13, 2003, plaintiff started treatment with Dr. I. Ahmad, a board certified orthopedic surgeon, for frequent headaches and injuries to his neck, back and left hip. Plaintiff also complained of pain on bending and lifting. He had difficulty going up and down stairs, and he complained of dizziness, blurred vision and headaches. According to plaintiff, he saw Dr. Ahmad eight to ten times; however, Dr. Ahmad testified that he saw plaintiff five times through September 9, 2003, for treatments consisting of physical therapy, diathermy and advisement on active range of movements of the injured areas. In any event, the bill for Dr. Ahmad's services was $210.

Dr. Ahmad testified the injuries for which he was treating plaintiff were caused by plaintiff's fall in his apartment, and his diagnosis was "sprain of the neck and the low back. Then sprain [of] the left hip[,] [a]nd cephalgia. That is headaches after this injury." Dr. Ahmad opined that plaintiff "had suffered from some residual effects and in all probability he would continue to have chronic pain and chronic stiffness with the restricted movements."

Although Dr. Ahmad reviewed plaintiff's medical records from the hospital, he testified that plaintiff did not inform him of any prior injuries. Plaintiff testified he was not asked about prior injuries, however, he acknowledged injuries to his head as a result of an accident in 1983 when he was driving a taxicab and injuries to his head and back in an accident he had when he worked at Waco Chemical Company. In addition, plaintiff testified that between 1988 and 2003, he experienced similar maladies to those he endured after the August 2003 accident: headaches, pain to his head, dizziness, disorientation and spasms in the lower back and pain in the left side of his head. He testified his complaints became more frequent after the August 2003 accident. In 1992, more than ten years before the accident that is the subject of this lawsuit, plaintiff had become disabled because of emphysema.

After the trial concluded, defendant filed a motion seeking a new trial or, alternatively, judgment notwithstanding the verdict or remittitur. On August 18, 2006, the return date for arguments on the motion, the judge observed that there was no permanency. Consequently, she found the jury's award of damages "was inconsistent with the injuries that the plaintiff sustained." The judge commented "quite honestly, when the jury gave a verdict of $250,000, it was shocking to me, . . . [and] counsel, you sat there stunned and defense counsel sat there with his eyes open. I think it shocked everybody."

Under the circumstances, the court determined it would not order a new trial, but it would instead grant a remittitur. Recognizing that plaintiff had suffered from some residual effects of the injuries he sustained in his fall, the judge concluded that the appropriate range for what she described as "soft tissue" injuries was between $2,500 and $7,500. Therefore, the judge ordered the higher amount, $7,500. That same day, she entered an order granting remittitur and denying the alternative forms of relief requested by defendant.

In deciding the post-trial motion, the judge concluded that the jury determination of liability was appropriate, but she found that the damages awarded were grossly disproportionate to the injuries sustained by plaintiff. On appeal, plaintiff contends that the trial judge's observation that the jury award was "given more to punish the defendant" should not have prompted the court to disturb the verdict. Plaintiff argues the award of punitive damages was within the jury's discretion. We disagree. First, "[t]he principal goal of damages in personal-injury actions is to compensate fairly the injured party." Caldwell v. Haynes, 136 N.J. 422, 433 (1994). "The purpose . . . of personal injury compensation is neither to reward the plaintiff, nor to punish the defendant, but to replace plaintiff's losses." Ibid. (quoting Domeracki v. Humble Oil & Ref. Co., 443 F.2d 1245, 1250 (3d Cir.) cert. denied, 404 U.S. 883, 92 S.Ct. 212, 30 L.Ed. 2d 165 (1971)).

Second, circumstances of aggravation and outrage, beyond simple commission of a tort, are required for an award of punitive damages. Pavlova v. Mint Management Corp., 375 N.J. Super. 397, 404 (App. Div.) certif. denied, 184 N.J. 211 (2005). Such circumstances were not demonstrated in this case. Third, but more importantly, "[a]n award of punitive damages must be specifically prayed for in the complaint." N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.11. Plaintiff's complaint never requested punitive damages. Hence, the jury was not authorized to award punitive damages.

Plaintiff next contends the judge improperly made observations about the demeanor of people who were not witnesses at trial. This obviously refers to the trial judge's remark to the effect that "[w]hen the jury gave a verdict of $250,000, it shocked me, as I saw on counsel, you sit there stunned and defense counsel sat there with eyes open." The judge was merely describing the immediate, seemingly involuntary reactions of those in the courtroom to the disclosure of the jury's ...

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