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Jastram v. Kruse

December 23, 2008

TIFFANY N. JASTRAM, BY HER GUARDIAN AD LITEM, DIANE JASTRAM AND DIANE JASTRAM, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
SCOTT M. KRUSE, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

At issue in this appeal is the propriety of an appellate panel's remission of a jury verdict from $500,000 to $50,000 after the trial judge, who had presided over the case, had ruled that the verdict was supported by the evidence and that it did not shock his conscience.

On September 16, 2002, Diane Jastram, individually and as guardian ad litem of her daughter, Tiffany, filed a complaint claiming that defendant Scott Kruse negligently operated his automobile and caused Tiffany to suffer "serious and permanent personal injuries."

At trial, the following facts were established. On January 16, 2002, seventeen-year-old Tiffany was injured in an automobile accident when the car she was driving was struck by a vehicle driven by defendant Scott Kruse. There are no liability issues in this case and thus there is no need to detail the happening of the accident, except to say that Kruse was traveling at less than thirty miles per hour, Tiffany was wearing her seat belt at impact, and the collision caused her to be thrust forward against the restraining device, and then back into her seat. Tiffany told police that she was not injured or in pain. That evening, however, Tiffany had a muscle spasm in her back and pains in her legs. She reported that pain to her mother.

Tiffany continued to suffer back pain and stiffness in the days following the accident, but did not seek professional medical treatment immediately, because she hoped that her pain and spasms would ebb naturally. Tiffany self-treated with pain relievers and heating pads. When the pain persisted for two weeks after the accident, Tiffany consulted Dr. Hausmann, an orthopedic surgeon. X-rays were negative and Dr. Hausmann did not perceive any structural damage. He prescribed anti-inflammatories and painkillers.

The medications alleviated the pain for a time, but it returned on completion of the prescriptions. Tiffany then consulted Dr. Grossman, a chiropractor. Tiffany's chiropractic treatment consisted of approximately nineteen visits and concluded on May 3, 2002. On April 29, 2002, Tiffany consulted Dr. Del Valle, a pain medicine and rehabilitation physician. Dr. Del Valle recommended trigger-point injections, which Tiffany declined because she was afraid of the two-and-one-half to three-inch needles and because Dr. Del Valle could not guarantee that the injections would reduce the pain. Tiffany then underwent physical therapy with an orthopedic surgeon. Because the exercises performed during physical therapy largely mirrored the home-exercise program that Tiffany had been following on the advice of Dr. Grossman, she stopped attending physical therapy after three sessions.

Tiffany testified that she had continuous, daily pain from the date of the accident up through the date of trial, which she treated using over-the-counter pain medication. She provided detailed testimony about the impact that her injury had on her lifestyle, in particular how the injury prevented her from continuing horseback riding, which she had taken up at the age of eight or nine. She also testified how the injury impacted her job. Tiffany worked at Hidden Hollow Farm, where she worked in exchange for riding privileges, training young horses, mucking out stalls, moving objects in wheelbarrows, and carrying water buckets. Tiffany could neither lift heavy objects nor partake in "her passion" for horseback riding. She no longer rides. In addition, Tiffany experienced interrupted sleep and other changes to her personal life. When she was asked to assess her general well-being, she responded, "I feel old sometimes."

Dr. Robert Dennis, a board-certified orthopedist who examined Tiffany and reviewed her medical records, opined that Tiffany sustained a "significant ligamentous injury [to her] lumbar spine and damage to the spinal column which has produced lumbar spinal instability." Dr. Dennis testified that Tiffany sustained "a permanent loss of function of the back." In response to Dr. Dennis's testimony, Kruse produced the expert testimony of Dr. Jay Bruce Bosniak, an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Bosniak testified that Tiffany's x-rays revealed "normal spine alignment. without evidence of any kind of acute or chronic. bone damage." He opined that Tiffany might be suffering from spondylolisthesis -- a condition in which one vertebra slides over the vertebra below it -- but stated that that condition "would not have been traumatically induced." On cross-examination, Dr. Bosniak agreed that Tiffany suffered a lumbar sprain. Thus, his sole point of disagreement with Dr. Dennis related to permanency.

At the conclusion of trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict declaring that Kruse was 100% negligent, that that negligence proximately caused Tiffany's injuries, and that she was entitled to an award of $500,000 in damages. Kruse filed a motion for new trial. The trial judge upheld the award, finding that the verdict was supported by the evidence and that, although he was "surprised at the verdict," it did not shock his conscience. Kruse appealed. In an unpublished opinion, a two-judge panel of the Appellate Division reversed, based on its conclusion that the verdict was clearly and shockingly excessive. The panel remitted the damage award to $50,000 plus prejudgment interest, and gave Tiffany the option of accepting the remitted verdict, or suffering a new damages trial.

The Supreme Court granted Tiffany's petition for certification. The sole issue before the Court involves the quantum of damages and remittitur.

HELD: The Appellate Division overstepped its bounds in this matter, essentially reweighing the evidence and substituting its judgment for that of the jury and the trial judge, without warrant to do so. The jury verdict is reinstated.

1. The Court's role in assessing a jury verdict for excessiveness is to assure that compensatory damages awarded to a plaintiff "encompass no more than the amount that will make the plaintiff whole, that is, the actual loss." Caldwell v. Haynes 136 N.J. 422, 433 (1994). The evaluation of damages is a matter uniquely reposed in the jury's good judgment and to justify judicial interference, "[t]he verdict must be 'wide of the mark' and pervaded by a sense of 'wrongness.'" Johnson v. Saccetti, 192 N.J. 256, 281 (2007). In analyzing whether a damages award is excessive, a trial judge's review must be grounded substantially in the "totality of the evidence" in the record, which is viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. In particular, the judge is to evaluate the nature and extent of the injury, the medical treatment that plaintiff underwent and may be required to undergo in the future, the impact of the injury on the plaintiff's life from the date of injury through the date of trial, and the projected impact of the injury on the plaintiff in the future. The court may look beyond the record to judicial "experience with other injury verdicts." Fertile v. St. Michael's Med. Ctr., 169 N.J. 491, 501 (2001) However, "if it does so, it must give a factual analysis of how the award is different or similar to others to which it is compared." Johnson, supra, 192 N.J. at 281. So analyzed, where an award, "[]even if generous[,] has reasonable support in the record, the jury's evaluation should be regarded as final." Taweel v. Starn's Shoprite Supermarket, 58 N.J. 227, 236 (1971). Further, under Rule 2:10-1, an appellate court only can reverse a trial judge's decision to deny a motion for new trial where "it clearly appears that there was a miscarriage of justice under the law" and the appellate court must afford "due deference" to the trial court's "feel of the case," such as witness credibility and other personal observations. Where the jury's verdict regarding liability is supported by the record, but the damages award is excessive, courts are encouraged to invoke remittitur to avoid a new trial. Taweel, supra, at 231. (Pp. 13-19)

2. The Court is satisfied that the Appellate Division was wide of the mark in its assessment of the verdict. Despite acknowledging that the evidence had to be viewed in a light most favorable to Tiffany, the Appellate Division instead viewed her case in a negative light and, in so doing, violated the precept of Baxter that it not sit as a thirteenth juror. To the contrary, the trial judge concluded that the jury believed Tiffany's evidence and recognized that, if believed, that evidence supported the verdict. The fact that Tiffany did not suffer a bone injury is of no moment to an assessment of what she did suffer, especially when no bone injury was claimed. The same is true of the absence of quantification. The absence of quantification testimony by Dr. Dennis was simply not a basis for the Appellate Division to refuse to accord deference to the jury's credibility evaluation. Likewise, the panel erred in relying on the fact that had the verbal threshold, N.J.S.A. 39:6A--8 (a), governed this action, Tiffany might not have overcome summary judgment because she could not objectively demonstrate "permanency." The outcome of this matter under AICRA is of no moment to its disposition pursuant to applicable legal principles. The Appellate Division was incorrect as well in citing the $12,500 offer of judgment as "reflecting Tiffany's assessment of a reasonable settlement." Rule 4:58-1(b) and N.J.R.E. 408 prohibit the admission of such evidence. The panel's opinion also rests on its analogy to awards rendered in other cases. That, in itself, is appropriate. However, the Appellate Division's reference to "thousands of garden-variety lumbar strains and sprains" was wide of the mark. The specific cases relied on by the Appellate Division are also unavailing. There is simply nothing to compare with this case. In the final analysis, the appellate panel compared the worst aspects of the comparison cases to the best aspects of Tiffany's case, again failing to give Tiffany the benefit of all the evidence and inferences available to her. Although paying lip service to respecting the trial judge's "feel of the case," the panel here did not acknowledge that that factor favors upholding the award. The Appellate Division essentially reweighed the evidence and substituted its judgment for that of the jury and the trial judge, without warrant to do so. To be sure, as the trial judge observed, this was a high verdict, but that does not mean it was excessive. (Pp. 19-26)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED. The jury verdict is REINSTATED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued October 7, 2008

At issue in this appeal is the propriety of an appellate panel's remission of a jury verdict from $500,000 to $50,000 after the trial judge, who had presided over the case, had ruled that the verdict was supported by the evidence and that it did not shock his conscience. We have concluded that the Appellate Division overstepped its bounds in this matter and accordingly reverse and remand for the reinstatement of the judgment entered upon the jury verdict.

I.

On September 16, 2002, Diane Jastram, individually and as guardian ad litem of her daughter, Tiffany, filed a complaint claiming that defendant Scott Kruse negligently operated his automobile and caused Tiffany to suffer "serious and permanent personal injuries."*fn1

At trial, the following facts were established:*fn2 On January 16, 2002, seventeen-year-old Tiffany was injured in an automobile accident when the car she was driving was struck by a vehicle driven by defendant Scott Kruse. There are no liability issues in the case and thus there is no need to detail the happening of the accident, except to say that Kruse was traveling at less than thirty miles per hour, that Tiffany was wearing her seat belt at impact, and that the collision caused her to be thrust forward against the restraining device, and then back into her seat.

At the scene, Tiffany told police that she was not injured or in pain. She then dropped her mother off and went out with a friend to celebrate her birthday as planned. She cut the evening short because she "was shaken up and . . . wanted to go home." That evening, Tiffany had a muscle spasm in her back and pains in her legs. She reported that pain to her mother.

She continued to suffer back pain and stiffness in the days following the accident, but did not seek professional medical treatment immediately, because she hoped that her pain and spasms would ebb naturally.*fn3 Tiffany self-treated with pain relievers and heating pads. Although she attended school after the accident, she testified to sporadic absences because of pain and to suffering pain and stiffness while in school. When the pain persisted for two weeks after the accident, Tiffany consulted Dr. Hausmann, an orthopedic surgeon. Tiffany complained that she had pain originating in her back that radiated down her left leg and left foot, that she was having trouble sleeping, and that she "was generally uncomfortable." X-rays were negative, and Dr. Hausmann did not perceive any structural damage. He prescribed anti-inflammatories and painkillers.

The medications alleviated the pain for a time, but it returned on completion of the prescriptions. Tiffany then consulted Dr. Grossman, a chiropractor. He prescribed three chiropractic sessions a week to adjust Tiffany's spine to relieve the tension. Dr. Grossman also ordered an MRI, which did not reveal structural damage to the spinal discs.

Tiffany's chiropractic treatment consisted of approximately nineteen visits and concluded on May 3, 2002. At Dr. Grossman's recommendation, she consulted Dr. Del Valle, a pain medicine and rehabilitation physician, on April 29, 2002, complaining of lower back pain and back spasms that caused pain to radiate down through her left leg. She reported that the pain in her left foot had lessened. Dr. Del Valle recommended trigger-point injections, which Tiffany declined because she was afraid of the ...


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