Addair v. Majestic Petroleum Co., Inc.

Decision Date08 March 1977
Docket NumberNo. 13609,13609
Citation232 S.E.2d 821,160 W.Va. 105
PartiesJarvis V. ADDAIR v. MAJESTIC PETROLEUM CO., INC.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

Courts must not set aside jury verdicts as excessive unless they are monstrous, enormous, at first blush beyond all measure, unreasonable, outrageous, and manifestly show jury passion, partiality, prejudice or corruption.

Tutwiler, Crockett & LaCaria, J. Strother Crockett, Welch, for appellant.

Ballard & Brumfield, G. David Brumfield, Welch, for appellee.

HARSHBARGER, Justice:

'We desire to be understood that this Court does not say, or lay down any rule that there never can happen a case of such excessive damages in tort where the Court may not grant a new trial; but in that case the damages must be monstrous and enormous indeed, and such as all mankind must be ready to exclaim against, at first blush. Beardmore v. Carrington, 2 Wilson, K.B. 244, 250, 95 Eng.Rep. 790, 793, (1764).'

This case comes to us because a McDowell County Circuit Court jury found $9,900.00 damages due plaintiff, whose special damages were $126.76.

Plaintiff was burned when gas from a well being drilled near his home caught fire. There was a dispute in the evidence about the source of ignition: It either caught from a cigarette plaintiff was smoking or from a lighted match thrown by defendant's employee.

Plaintiff suffered second degree burns to his face and hands. His hair was burned off. He was taken to Welch Emergency Hospital, a charitable hospital where he remained nine days. His expense at the hospital was only $126.76, the cost of medicine.

According to defendant's brief the residual damages plaintiff suffers are a cosmetic discoloration of his hands, and a moderate paresthesia or numbness and discomfort in cold weather.

Defendant contends that the verdict was excessive and evidenced jury passion, prejudice and partiality and is based upon evidence that is contrary to natural law and physical facts. The trial court refused to set aside the verdict and award a new trial; defendant asks us to do so.

The books are full of attempts by this and other courts to carefully review trial records to determine whether trial judges should have set aside jury verdicts as excessive. Implicit in all these cases is the substitution of judges' judgment about the amount that should have been awarded for the judgment of juries.

An interesting example is Virginian Railway Company v. Armentrout, 166 F.2d 400 (4th Cir. 1948), wherein the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Judge Ben Moore of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia erred in refusing to set aside a verdict as excessive. The verdict was $160,000 to an infant whose hands and portions of whose arms were cut off by a backing locomotive in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

To justify its ruling the appellate court spoke about elements the jury could have considered:

The problem of assessing damages in a case of this sort is one which must be approached when common sense. The little child has been terribly injured; but there is nothing from which loss of earning capacity can be estimated with any degree of accuracy. The jury must do the best it can to estimate this, taking into account, of course, such matters as average earnings. They can consider, also, that the child is bright and intelligent and with proper education may be able to develop high earning capacity in intellectual pursuits. While pain, suffering and humiliation are to be considered, it should also be considered on the matter of humiliation whether one who has suffered the deprivation of a member in infancy is likely to feel the same sense of humiliation from it as does one who sustains the loss later in life, and whether mechanical aids, which science has brought to a high state of development as a result of experimentation for the benefit of soldiers wounded in the late war, may not enable him to overcome this in considerable measure. All of these matters should be taken into account and an amount awarded which in the opinion of the jury will fairly compensate for the injury inflicted. It is for the jury to fix the amount but they must do this within the bounds of reason, and a verdict on which the mere interest at 3% Amounts to more than five times the maximum allowed by the state compensation laws and $1,800 per year more than the judge estimates the loss of adult earning power is manifestly too much. 166 F.2d at 407--408.

We quote the words to illustrate what we consider to be the dangerous exercise of speculation by jurists about what juries Could have considered in arriving at verdicts (of course, not knowing whether or not they did), elements that in the judges' minds Should have resulted in the award of less money.

It seems ludicrous for an appellate court to say that a child whose hands have been cut off is not entitled to the damages awarded, because the child is bright and intelligent and with proper education 'may be able to develop high earning capacity in intellectual pursuits'! But to such extremes we are pushed when we embark upon the practice of second guessing.

After the Armentrout decision the Fourth Circuit applied its reasoning in Southern Railway Company v. Neese, 216 F.2d 772 (4th Cir. 1954) and ruled that the Eastern District of South Carolina Court abused its discretion by not awarding a new trial where $60,000 damages were found by a jury in favor of W. W. Neese, Administrator of William Neese, deceased. William, 22, unmarried and living with his parents, was an employee of the railroad and was killed by one of its engines. The Circuit Court examined into the evidence at length and concluded that the award, which the trial court had reduced to $50,000 because of excessiveness, was still too high.

The United States Supreme Court, in Neese v. Southern Railway Company, 350 U.S. 77, 76 S.Ct. 131, 100 L.Ed. 60 (1955) by Per curiam order, said, 'We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, 216 F.2d 772, without reaching the constitutional challenge to that court's jurisdiction to review the denial by the trial court of a motion for a new trial on the ground that the verdict was excessive.' The court said it reviewed the evidence and thought the action of the trial court was not without support in the record and should not have been disturbed. See West v. Richmond, F. & P.R. Co., 528 F.2d 290 (4th Cir. 1975).

We are thus brought to the nub of the matter of setting aside 'excessive' verdicts and awarding new trials: Are there state and federal constitutional restrictions that prohibit court's interference with jury verdicts claimed to be excessive?

There have been extensive discussions in the cases about this. The federal courts have developed case law about Seventh Amendment affect upon both the trial courts' and the appellate courts' authority to reexamine facts found by juries.

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and 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. U.S.Const. amend. VII.

Some federal courts view as restricted the right of appellate courts to interfere with trial judges' discretion in setting aside excessive verdicts. Simmons v. Avisco, Local 713, Textile Workers Union of America, 350 F.2d 1012 (4th Cir. 1965). But as Judge Medina teaches in Dagnello v. Long Island Railroad Company, 289 F.2d 797 (2d Cir. 1961), state appellate courts have recognized no limitation on their authority to review actions of trial judges who have upheld or set aside jury verdicts claimed to be excessive.

And the authority of the trial judges themselves to grant new trials where they conceive verdicts to be excessive was also discussed in Dagnello:

From the early days of the Republic trial judges seem to have assumed they had power to set aside verdicts and grant...

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