Monday, September 1, 2008

When it Comes to Damages, Jurors rule.

Kato v. Funari (HSC August 25, 2008)

Background. Kato was in a car accident with Funari. Kato sued Funari claiming negligence. After a jury trial, the circuit court granted Kato's motion for directed verdict on the issue of fault. Without objection, the circuit court instructed the jury that any damages awarded were legally caused by Funari's negligence. On the special verdict form there were four questions. The first asked if Funari's negligence legally caused Kato's injuries. The jury answered yes. The second asked for Kato's "total damages." The jury totaled $59,536.55. The third asked if there were any injuries related to a pre-existing condition. Yes, answered the jury. The fourth asked that, if so, what percentage of Kato's injuries came from the pre-existing condition. The jury stated "90%." The circuit court reduced $59,536.55 by 90%. Kato appealed.

Juries are Presumed to Follow Instructions. Determining the proper amount of damages is "within the exclusive province of the jury[.]" Knodle v. Waikiki Gateway Hotel, Inc., 69 Haw. 376, 385, 742 P.2d 377, 383 (1987). When a special verdict form asks the jury to make special findings and answer specific questions, the circuit court must explain to the jury how the particular law relates to the evidence and ensure that the jury will not be misled. Id. at 384, 742 P.3d at 382-83. Furthermore, "juries are presumed to be reasonable and follow all the trial court's instructions. . . . Therefore, it is not an 'inference' . . . that the jury followed one instruction as opposed to another." Meyers v. South Seas Corp., 76 Hawai'i 161, 165, 871 P.2d 1231, 1235 (1994).

And a Very Strong Presumption at that. The circuit court in this case used the standard jury instruction that the damages awarded must be legally caused by Funari's negligence. See Montalvo v. Lapez, 77 Hawai'i 282, 884 P.2d 345 (1994). It also asked, in the special verdict form, to add up and state the "total damages." The HSC pointed out that the phrase "total damages" is undefined and, as courts on appeal must presume that the jury followed all of its instructions correctly, the "total damages" were the same "damages" legally caused by Funari's negligence. Thus, the "total damages" were presumed apportioned by the pre-existing condition. In other words, the last two questions about a pre-existing condition and apportionment should have never been on the special verdict form.

But is it Irrefutable? The presumption of reasonable jurors following their instructions was not questioned in this case. The HSC, however, never stated that the presumption could be overturned. When Kato tried to get the circuit court to amend the judgment, Funari objected on the grounds that presuming that the jury intended to award $59,536.55 as the "total damages" was illogical. In the end, argument alone did not rebut the presumption. And it begs the question-- what would have happened if Funari presented evidence that the jurors thought the $59,536.55 represented the injuries before apportionment in spite of the contrary instructions and verdict form? Would that be enough to rebut the presumption? For that matter, is it even possible to rebut the presumption at all? These questions lead to a strange place. If it cannot be overcome, then that means the courts will turn a blind eye to what the jury actually did. On the other hand, an irrefutable ensures finality. If evidence can overcome the presumption, then the motion to amend the judgment may follow every jury verdict. We will have to see.

Saving Apportionment. The HSC, in dictum, commented that its holding is not a "blanket prohibition again the inclusion of apportionment questions." However, when the jury has been instructed that the damages awarded are legally caused by the defendant's negligence, then apportionment has no place in the special verdict form. If there must be apportionment questions in the special verdict form, cautioned the HSC, then the jury instructions must be consistent with those questions.

Damages v. Injuries. Or can it be the other way around? Could any change in the language of the special verdict form here be consistent with the standard Montalvo instruction? Perhaps the key lies in the definition of the term "total damages." Had the second question asked the jury to state the "total expenses from injuries" instead of the term of art, "damages," it might have been consistent with the Montalvo instruction. The apportionment instruction is important law to guide the jury in awarding damages. But it is clear that "damages" are not injuries. Only those injuries that can be legally caused constitute a plaintiff's "damages."

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