997 F.2d 291 (7th Cir. 1993), 92-3041, Stutzman v. CRST, Inc.

Docket Nº:92-3041.
Citation:997 F.2d 291
Party Name:Lamar STUTZMAN and Rhonda Stutzman, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. CRST, INCORPORATED, an Iowa corporation, and Ferman Brown, Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:June 21, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
 
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Page 291

997 F.2d 291 (7th Cir. 1993)

Lamar STUTZMAN and Rhonda Stutzman, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

CRST, INCORPORATED, an Iowa corporation, and Ferman Brown,

Defendants-Appellants.

No. 92-3041.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 21, 1993

Argued Feb. 17, 1993.

Page 292

John D. Ulmer, Patrick F. O'Leary (argued), Yoder, Ainlay, Ulmer & Buckingham, Loraine P. Troyer, Goshen, IN, for plaintiffs-appellees.

Michael McDonough (argued), Cedar Rapids, IA, Daniel W. Glavin, Beckman, Kelly & Smith, Hammond, IN, for defendants-appellants.

Before EASTERBROOK and KANNE, Circuit Judges, and WILL, Senior District Judge. [*]

KANNE, Circuit Judge.

This diversity action stems from an automobile accident in Indiana between Lamar Stutzman, an Indiana resident, and Ferman

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Brown, a driver for CRST, Inc. The Stutzmans filed a complaint in Indiana state court against CRST and Mr. Brown for damages stemming from Mr. Stutzman's injuries. CRST, an Iowa corporation, responded by removing the case to federal court and denying any negligence on its part or the part of Mr. Brown, a Missouri resident. Shortly before trial, CRST admitted liability. The subsequent trial on damages resulted in a jury verdict for the Stutzmans: $783,000 for Mr. Stutzman and $100,000 for Mrs. Stutzman. On appeal, the defendants claim that the trial was so error-ridden that a new trial is required. We disagree and affirm the plaintiffs' judgment.

Of the many issues raised by the defendants, only three merit significant discussion: (1) whether the jury instruction on damages improperly shifted the burden of proof to the defendants, (2) whether the jury instruction on the aggravation of a pre-existing condition was supported by the evidence, and (3) whether the jury verdict was excessive.

I. Jury Instructions

  1. Burden of Proof Regarding Damages

    In its charge to the jury, the district court gave the following instruction:

    No particular degree of mathematical certainty is required in awarding damages so long as the amount awarded is supported by probative evidence, but it may not be based upon mere conjecture, speculation, or guesswork.

    Where there is doubt as to the exact proof of damages, such uncertainty may be resolved against the negligent party.

    The defendants correctly note that the burden of proof on the issue of damages rests with the plaintiff. See Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. v. NCR Corp., 772 F.2d 315 (7th Cir.1985) (following Indiana law). Understandably, the defendants urge us to focus solely on the second paragraph of the instruction and conclude that it improperly removes the burden of proof from the plaintiffs and places it on the defendants. However, we are required to look at more than just one sentence.

    In a diversity case, federal law guides our review of jury instructions. Smith v. Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. Co., 778 F.2d 384 (7th Cir.1985). The following passage aptly sums up the task before us:

    [O]ur review of jury instructions is limited to the determination of "whether the jury was misled in any way and whether it had understanding of the issues and its duty to determine those issues.... With instructions, we don't pick nits; we examine the whole of what was given and look for overall fairness and accuracy."

    Trustees of Indiana University v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 920 F.2d 429, 437 (7th Cir.1990) (quoting Midcoast Aviation, Inc. v. General Elec. Credit Corp., 907 F.2d 732, 741-42 n. 7 (7th Cir.1990)).

    Viewing the instructions as a whole, we cannot say that the jury was misled. The first paragraph of the instruction told the jury that their award had to be based on probative evidence, rather than on speculation. A preceding instruction told the jury:

    You must determine the amount of money that will fairly compensate Mr. Stutzman for those elements of damage that were proved by the evidence to have resulted from the negligence of the defendants.... You are to determine whether these elements of damage have been proved by a preponderance of the evidence relating to damages.

    In addition, one of the first instructions told the jury that the plaintiffs had the burden of proving their case--a case only on the issue of damages since CRST had admitted liability. Finally, the court made the following statement during its preliminary instructions:

    The plaintiffs will have to prove their damages by a preponderance of the evidence, and will have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendants' negligence was the "proximate cause" of their injuries.

    Read as a whole, we are satisfied that the jury understood that the burden of proof was on the plaintiffs. The second paragraph of the challenged instruction merely told the jury that if an item of damage, already proven,

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    was difficult to quantify, they were permitted to resolve that doubt against the defendants as the admittedly negligent party. This is not an incorrect statement of law, thus the defendants were not prejudiced by it. See Ft. Wayne v. Capehart-Farnsworth Corp., 127 Ind.App. 412, 142 N.E.2d 442, 448 (1957).

  2. Sufficiency of Medical Evidence Regarding the "Aggravation of a Pre-existing Condition"

    The defendants challenge a second instruction. The district court told the jury that when they determined the proper amount to award Mr. Stutzman they could consider, inter alia, "the aggravation of a previous injury." The defendants argue that this charge constitutes reversible error because the plaintiffs failed to show that Mr. Stutzman's pre-existing condition, a congenital back problem called spondylolisthesis, was aggravated by his car accident injury. Further, the defendants claim that the error was not harmless because it resulted in a higher damages award.

    "It is prejudicial error for a trial court to give instructions which find no support in the evidence, unless the record shows the error is clearly harmless." Kirschner v. Broadhead, 671 F.2d 1034, 1040 (7th Cir.1982). Consequently, the issue before us is whether the plaintiffs offered sufficient competent evidence that Mr. Stutzman's previous medical condition was aggravated by the accident. It is argued that no competent evidence supported the instruction because the only evidence on aggravation was improperly admitted.

    At trial, the plaintiffs called two expert medical witnesses. Dr. Schaffer testified, via deposition, that trauma could aggravate spondylolisthesis and that he thought Mr. Stutzman's spondylolisthesis was aggravated by the car accident. However, during cross-examination in response to a series of questions concerning the aggravation of Mr. Stutzman's spondylolisthesis, Dr. Schaffer qualified his earlier testimony:

    A [ ] Just that it might have exacerbated the problem and it may not have. [ ] And I...

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