Flax v. Daimlerchrysler Corp., M2005-01768-SC-R11-CV.

Citation272 S.W.3d 521
Decision Date24 July 2008
Docket NumberNo. M2005-01768-SC-R11-CV.,M2005-01768-SC-R11-CV.
PartiesJeremy FLAX et al. v. DAIMLERCHRYSLER CORPORATION et al.
CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee

Louis A. Stockell, Jr., Madison, Tennessee, Pro Se.

Allison Orr Larsen, K. Lee Blalack, II, and Matthew M. Shors, Washington, D.C., for the Amicus Curiae, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Christopher Landau and Robin S. Conrad, Washington, DC, and John Randolph Bibb, Jr., Nashville, Tennessee, for the Amicus Curiae, The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America.

Jonathan M. Hoffman, Portland, Oregon, and Linda J. Hamilton Mowles, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the Amicus Curiae, The Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc.

OPINION

JANICE M. HOLDER, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which WILLIAM M. BARKER, C.J., joined. CORNELIA A. CLARK, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part. GARY R. WADE, J., concurring. WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., J., concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The plaintiffs filed this products liability case against DaimlerChrysler seeking damages for the wrongful death of their son and for emotional distress suffered by the mother. The plaintiffs also sought punitive damages. We granted review to determine: 1) whether a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim brought simultaneously with a wrongful death claim is a "stand-alone" claim that requires expert medical or scientific proof of a severe emotional injury; 2) whether the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support an award of punitive damages; 3) whether the punitive damages awarded by the trial court were excessive; and 4) whether the trial court erred by recognizing the plaintiffs' second failure to warn claim. We hold that the simultaneous filing of a wrongful death suit does not prevent a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim from being a "stand-alone" claim. Therefore, negligent infliction of emotional distress claims brought under these circumstances must be supported by expert medical or scientific proof of a severe emotional injury. In addition, we conclude that the punitive damages awarded by the trial court were adequately supported by the evidence and were not excessive. Finally, we hold that the trial court erred by recognizing the plaintiffs' second failure to warn claim but conclude that the error did not prejudice the judicial process or more probably than not affect the jury's verdict. Accordingly, we affirm the Court of Appeals' reversal of the compensatory and punitive damage awards based on the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim and reverse the Court of Appeals' decision to overturn the punitive damage award related to the plaintiffs' wrongful death claim.

I. Facts and Procedural History

On June 30, 2001, Rachel Sparkman and her eight-month-old son, Joshua Flax, were passengers in a 1998 Dodge Grand Caravan ("the Caravan") operated by Ms. Sparkman's father, Jim Sparkman. Ms. Sparkman was seated in a captain's chair directly behind the driver's seat. Joshua Flax was restrained in a child safety seat in the captain's chair directly behind the front passenger's seat, which Joe McNeil occupied.

As Mr. Sparkman turned left from a private drive onto a public road, the Caravan was rear-ended by a pickup truck driven by Louis Stockell. According to the testimony of the accident reconstruction experts, the pickup truck was traveling between fifty and fifty-six miles per hour at the time of impact. The Caravan was traveling in the same direction at a speed between ten and fifteen miles per hour. At the moment of the impact, the Caravan experienced a change in velocity of approximately seventeen to twenty-three miles per hour. Accident reconstruction experts for both parties testified that Mr. Sparkman was not responsible for the accident and that the accident would not have occurred if Mr. Stockell had not been driving at an excessive speed.2

Upon impact, the backs of the seats containing Mr. Sparkman, Ms. Sparkman, and Mr. McNeil yielded rearward into a reclining position. Tragically, the front passenger's seatback collapsed far enough to allow the back of Mr. McNeil's head to collide with Joshua Flax's forehead. The collision fractured Joshua Flax's skull and caused severe brain damage. None of the other passengers in the Caravan suffered serious injuries. Experts for both parties acknowledged that Joshua Flax would not have been seriously injured if the seat in front of him had not yielded rearward.

Immediately after the Caravan came to a rest, Ms. Sparkman checked on her son's condition and saw that his forehead had been, in her words, "smashed in." Michael Loftis, one of the first people to arrive at the scene of the accident, testified that he saw Ms. Sparkman outside the vehicle holding Joshua Flax. Because he believed Ms. Sparkman was "kind of hysterical" and could have accidentally caused further injury to Joshua Flax, Mr. Loftis offered to hold the child. Although initially reluctant, Ms. Sparkman agreed to give her son to Mr. Loftis. At this point, Mr. Loftis first observed that Joshua Flax had "a hole in his forehead approximately the size of a golf ball and probably a half inch deep." A short time later, Joshua Flax was transported to the hospital by ambulance. He died of his injuries the next day.

On May 7, 2002, Ms. Sparkman and Joshua Flax's father, Jeremy Flax, filed a complaint against Mr. Stockell3 and DaimlerChrysler Corporation ("DCC"), the manufacturer of the Caravan. The complaint alleged that the Caravan's seats are defective and unreasonably dangerous, that DCC failed to warn consumers that the seats pose a danger to children seated behind them, and that DCC is strictly liable under the Tennessee Products Liability Act of 1978. Tenn.Code Ann. §§ 29-28-101 to -108 (2000). The plaintiffs further alleged that the condition of the seats and the failure to warn proximately caused Joshua Flax's death and caused Ms. Sparkman to suffer severe emotional distress. Finally, the plaintiffs alleged that punitive damages are warranted because DCC acted intentionally and recklessly in manufacturing, marketing, and selling the Caravan.

After a lengthy trial, the jury found that the seats were defective and unreasonably dangerous, that DCC failed to warn the plaintiffs about the dangers of the seats at the time of sale, that DCC failed to warn plaintiffs about the dangers of the seats after the sale, and that DCC acted recklessly such that punitive damages should be imposed. The jury apportioned half of the fault to DCC and the other half to Mr. Stockell. Finally, the jury awarded $5,000,000 to the plaintiffs for the wrongful death of Joshua and $2,500,000 to Ms. Sparkman individually for negligent infliction of emotional distress ("NIED").

After the second stage of the trial, the jury awarded $65,500,000 in punitive damages to the plaintiffs for the wrongful death of Joshua Flax and $32,500,000 in punitive damages to Ms. Sparkman individually for NIED. Following the jury's verdict, the trial court conducted a review of the jury's award of punitive damages as required by Hodges v. S.C. Toof & Co., 833 S.W.2d 896, 902 (Tenn.1992). In its findings of fact and conclusions of law the trial court concluded that "the jury properly found that Daimler Chrysler [sic] acted recklessly and that punitive damages were warranted." The trial court also concluded that the jury's award of punitive damages was excessive because there was a very large discrepancy between the punitive damages, totaling $98,000,000, and the compensatory damages for which DCC was liable, totaling $3,750,000. Accordingly, the trial court reduced the punitive damages to $20,000,000, a remittitur of $78,000,000. In its final order, the trial court indicated that the plaintiffs were entitled to $13,367,345 in punitive damages for the wrongful death of Joshua Flax and that Ms. Sparkman was individually entitled to $6,632,655 in punitive damages for NIED.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals concluded that Ms. Sparkman's NIED claim was subject to the heightened proof requirements set forth in Camper v. Minor, 915 S.W.2d 437, 446 (Tenn.1996). The Court of Appeals reversed the jury's award of compensatory and punitive damages related to Ms. Sparkman's NIED claim against DCC because the plaintiffs did not satisfy the heightened proof requirements for a "stand-alone" NIED claim. In addition, the Court of Appeals concluded that there was not clear and convincing evidence that DCC acted recklessly or intentionally. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's award of all remaining punitive damages. Finally, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's award of $5,000,000 in compensatory damages for the wrongful death of Joshua Flax. The plaintiffs appealed the ruling of the Court of Appeals. We granted review.

II. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

We begin our analysis with Ms. Sparkman's NIED claim. Our modern jurisprudence concerning NIED began with Camper. In that case, the plaintiff was operating a cement truck when a vehicle operated by the defendant pulled in front of him. The defendant was killed immediately in the resulting collision. Although the plaintiff suffered only minor physical injuries, he filed an NIED claim alleging that he suffered emotional injuries from viewing the defendant's body immediately after the accident.

We began our analysis in Camper by recognizing that the law governing NIED

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