393 U.S. 156 (1968), 35, Grunenthal v. Long Island Railroad Co.

Docket Nº:No. 35
Citation:393 U.S. 156, 89 S.Ct. 331, 21 L.Ed.2d 309
Party Name:Grunenthal v. Long Island Railroad Co.
Case Date:November 18, 1968
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 156

393 U.S. 156 (1968)

89 S.Ct. 331, 21 L.Ed.2d 309

Grunenthal

v.

Long Island Railroad Co.

No. 35

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 18, 1968

Argued October 24, 1968

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner was awarded a jury verdict of $305,000 in damages in an action for a severe foot injury which he brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. Having concluded that the relevant evidence weighed heavily in favor of the jury's award, the trial court denied respondent railroad's motion to set the award aside as excessive. On the railroad's appeal the Court of Appeals, in accordance with Darello v. Long Island R. Co., 289 F.2d 797, limited its inquiry to determining whether the trial judge abused his discretion in denying the railroad's motion. The court made no detailed appraisal of the evidence bearing on damages, but found an abuse of discretion and ordered the District Court to grant the railroad a new trial unless petitioner agreed to remit $105,000 of the award.

Held: This Court makes its own independent appraisal, and concludes that there was no abuse of the trial court's discretion in allowing the award to stand. Pp. 159-162.

388 F.2d 480, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was working for respondent as foreman of a track gang when a 300-pound railroad tie being lifted by the gang fell and severely crushed his right foot. He sued respondent for damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq., and a jury in the District Court for the

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Southern District of New York awarded him $305,000.1 The trial judge denied the railroad's motion to set the award aside as excessive. The railroad appealed the denial to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and that court, one judge dissenting, ordered the District Court to grant the railroad a new trial unless the petitioner would agree to remit $105,000 of the award. 388 F.2d 480 (1968). We granted certiorari, 391 U.S. 902 (1968).2 We reverse.

Petitioner argues that the Court of Appeals exceeded its appellate powers in reviewing the denial of the railroad's motion, either because such review is constitutionally precluded by the provision of the Seventh Amendment that "no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law,"3 or

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because such review is prohibited by the Federal Employers' Liability Act itself. We have no occasion in this case to consider that argument, for assuming, without deciding, that the Court of Appeals was [89 S.Ct. 333] empowered to review the denial and invoked the correct standard of review, the action of the trial judge, as we view the evidence, should not have been disturbed. See Neese v. Southern R. Co., 350 U.S. 77 (1955).

The trial judge filed an unreported opinion. * He considered that, in deciding the railroad's motion he "must indulge . . . in a fairly accurate estimate of factors to which the jury gave attention, and favorable response, in order to arrive at the verdict announced." He concluded that the motion should be denied because, applying that standard, the relevant evidence weighed heavily in favor of the jury's assessment. His instructions to the jury had limited the items of damages to wages lost before trial, compensation for loss of future earnings, and past and continuing pain and suffering. His opinion detailed the items of evidence which, in his view, were sufficient to support the jury in finding that (1) wages lost before trial amounted to approximately $27,000, (2) loss of future wages based on petitioner's present salary of $6,000 per annum plus likely increases over a life expectancy of 27.5 years would amount to $150,000 present value, and (3) "an amount approaching $150,000 [would be appropriate] for plaintiff's pain and suffering -- past and future." The judge conceded that the aggregate award seemed generous, but he concluded nevertheless that it was "not generous to a fault or outside the bounds of legal appropriateness." He emphasized that

the trial record here has many unusual features, the most outstanding one being the noncontroversial nature of the defense as to damages. The jury, impressed by the

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uncontroverted proof adduced by plaintiff, may well have adopted in toto its full significance and drawn such normal and natural inferences therefrom as the law endorses.

The Court of Appeals regarded its inquiry as limited to determining whether the trial judge abused his discretion in denying the railroad's motion. Its guide for that determination, the court stated, was the standard of review announced in its earlier decision in Dagnello v. Long Island R. Co., 289 F.2d 797, 806 (1961):

[W]e appellate judges [are] not to decide whether we would have set aside the verdict if we were presiding at the trial, but whether the amount is so high that it would be a denial of justice to permit it to stand. We must give the benefit of every doubt to the judgment of the trial judge; but surely there must be an upper limit, and whether that has been surpassed is not a question of fact, with respect to which reasonable men may differ, but a question of law.4

We read Dagnello, however, as requiring the Court of Appeals in applying this standard to make a detailed appraisal of the evidence bearing on damages. Indeed, this reexamination led to the conclusion in Dagnello that it was not a denial of justice to permit the jury's award to stand. If the Court of Appeals made a similar appraisal of the evidence in this case, the details are not disclosed in the majority opinion. Beyond attaching unexplained significance to petitioner's failure in his complaint "to ask for damages in such a large sum as $305,000," the relevant discussion is limited to the bald statement that

giving Grunenthal the benefit of

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every doubt, and weighing the evidence precisely in the same manner as we did in Dagnello . . . , we cannot, in any rational manner consistent with the evidence, arrive at a sum in excess of $200,000.

388 F.2d at 484. We have therefore made our own independent appraisal of the evidence. We conclude that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in finding "nothing untoward, inordinate, unreasonable or outrageous -- nothing indicative of a runaway jury or one that lost its head."

The liability and damage issues were tried separately before the same jury. The evidence at the trial on damages consisted of stipulated hospital and employment records, a stipulation that petitioner's life expectancy was 27.5 years, and the oral testimony of the petitioner, his medical expert, and an official of his railroad union. The railroad offered no witnesses.

Petitioner was 41 years of age at the time of his injury, and had been in the railroad's employ for over 20 years. The railroad concedes in its brief that he was earning approximately $6,000 annually and that the jury could properly find that he was entitled to $27,000 for wages already lost over the four and one-half year period between injury and judgment. The railroad further concedes that an award of $100,000 for loss of future wages would not be improper, this on the premise that, invested in federal securities, that sum would realize $6,000 annually. The trial judge, on the other hand, appraised the evidence on future earnings as sufficient to support an award of $150,000 for loss of future wages in light of the

convincing testimony, not refuted . . . , demonstrating the steady wage increases in recent time for work equivalent to that rendered by plaintiff, and the strong likelihood that similar increases would continue.

We cannot say that the trial judge's view...

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