Mader v. Duquesne Light Co.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation241 A.3d 600
Docket NumberNo. 33 WAP 2019,33 WAP 2019
Parties Steven MADER, Appellant v. DUQUESNE LIGHT COMPANY, Appellee
Decision Date18 November 2020
OPINION

JUSTICE TODD

In this appeal by allowance, we consider the limits on a trial court's discretion to order a new trial on all damages where a jury's award on certain damages was based on stipulations or was otherwise unimpeachable. As we agree with the Superior Court that the trial court herein abused its discretion, we affirm.

Appellant Steven Mader was a self-employed masonry contractor. In September 2012, Mader was working on a project involving repairs to a chimney, fireplace, and front stoop of a home in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On September 21, 2012, after Mader completed the project and his crew was cleaning the premises, his customer asked if he would check the gutters of the home to see if any mortar from the chimney repair had washed into the gutters during a recent rainstorm. Mader, after checking the gutters, was returning to his truck with the ladder. Underground electrical service was provided to every home in the neighborhood, but Mader had not noticed that there was an electrical power line only 11 feet from the customer's home. The top of the ladder made contact with the power line and 13,000 volts of electricity ran down the ladder and through Mader's body. Mader immediately lost consciousness and fell to the ground. He suffered severe burns to both arms where he had been holding the ladder and both feet where the electricity exited his body. Mader was taken to a hospital where he was given his last rites from a priest, but ultimately survived.

The next day, Mader underwent surgery on his feet and right arm. Both of his feet were burned from the toes to the mid-forefoot, with the burn penetrating to the bone. Dead and dying tissue was removed, and cadaver grafts were attached to Mader's feet. Tissue was excised from Mader's right arm that was also burned to the bone. To relieve swelling in this arm, medical professionals opened the subcutaneous layers of skin (a procedure known as a fasciotomy

) and performed a cadaver graft. During a second surgery while still at the hospital, the fasciotomy on Mader's right arm was closed, and tissue was excised from his left hand and wrist. Subsequently, on October 1, 2012, both of his feet were amputated at the middle arch, known as a transmetatarsal amputation. On October 3, 2012, Mader returned to the hospital for irrigation of the amputation wounds, and, one week later, he had an additional surgery to excise tissue and place a wound vac on his right forearm. Finally, on October 25, 2012, Mader had his last surgery, during which tissue was debrided around his elbow and he received an autograft, which consisted of the removal of healthy tissue from Mader's upper thighs that was used to replace the skin he had lost. For the next six weeks, Mader stayed in a skilled nursing facility.

Mader's masonry business completed outstanding projects while he was hospitalized. His two employees came to the nursing facility daily to receive assignments. Due to the change in season, at the same time Mader moved to the skilled nursing facility, his business converted solely to chimney cleaning. When he left the skilled nursing facility, Mader was confined to a wheelchair; however, he later was able to walk with his gait altered to accommodate the amputation of the balls of his feet. Nevertheless, within two years, Mader closed his business, as he could no longer participate in the physical demands of bricklaying and the market would not bear his prices without him doing the work.

In April 2013, Mader sued Appellee Duquesne Light Company ("Duquesne Light"), the owner of the power line the ladder came into contact with, in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Mader alleged that Duquesne Light's negligence in maintaining the electric lines too close to the ground caused his injuries and that Duquesne Light acted with reckless indifference to his safety; he also sought punitive damages. At the conclusion of a trial by jury, Duquesne Light was found to be 60% negligent and Mader was found to be 40% negligent for his injuries.

Importantly, for purposes of this appeal, the jury awarded Mader $500,000 in compensatory damages, which was molded to $300,000 to account for his 40% negligence.

At Mader's request, the trial court instructed the jury that he was entitled to compensation for past medical expenses, which were stipulated to by the parties; future medical expenses; and past and future lost earnings. The jury was also instructed on, and given an itemized verdict slip for, damages for past and future pain and suffering; embarrassment and humiliation; loss of ability to enjoy the pleasures of life, and disfigurement.1

The jury awarded $444,525.56 for past medical expenses and $55,474.44 for future medical expenses. The jury awarded $0 for past or future lost earnings, and $0 in noneconomic damages.

Mader filed a motion for post-trial relief requesting a new trial on the issue of damages. Duquesne Light acknowledged that Mader was entitled to a new trial on damages for pain and suffering until the date his wounds healed

, and disfigurement. It denied, however, that Mader was entitled to a new trial on future noneconomic damages or either past or future lost earnings. Nevertheless, the trial court granted Mader's request for a new trial on all damages.2

Specifically, with respect to the stipulated past medical expenses, the trial court determined that Mader was likely to incur additional medical expenses during the pendency of the new trial, and thus, his past medical expenses would likely be greater than the stipulated $444,525.56 awarded by the jury. Additionally, the trial court opined that having a new trial on past medical expenses would avoid the confusion that would likely result from a new jury hearing evidence of pain and suffering as a result of Mader's medical procedures, but not being given the opportunity to award past medical expenses for these procedures.

Regarding future medical expenses, Mader's expert had testified that Mader would incur future medical expenses in the amount of approximately $2,100,000, whereas Duquesne Light's experts projected that Mader would incur medical expenses in the range of $42,636.65 to $50,483.67. As noted, the jury awarded future medical expenses in the amount of $55,474.44. The trial court opined that, even though the jury award was closer to Duquesne Light's projected future medical expenses, it was impossible to know how the jury arrived at $55,474.44. The trial court surmised that it was most likely that the jury arrived at that amount because, when it is added to the stipulated past medical expenses, the total was a round amount — $500,000. The trial court rejected Duquesne Light's argument that a jury that irrationally determined that Mader was not entitled to any compensation for his excruciating pain or disfiguring amputations and burns could nonetheless rationally calculate future medical expenses. Additionally, the court reasoned that, similar to its grant of a new trial for past medical expenses, experts at the new trial would have to project revised future medical expenses, as medical expenses incurred during the pendency of the new trial could no longer be classified as future medical expenses.

Thereafter, Duquesne Light appealed to the Superior Court. In a unanimous published decision, the court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. Mader v. Duquesne Light Co. , 199 A.3d 1258 (Pa. Super. 2018).3 Specifically, regarding the trial court's grant of a new trial for past medical expenses, the Superior Court reversed. The court found that the parties stipulated to $444,525.56 as the amount of Mader's past medical expenses and that the trial court expressly instructed the jury that it was to award that amount to Mader if it found Duquesne Light had caused Mader's harm. The Superior Court stressed that stipulations are binding on the court as well as the parties, and noted that juries are presumed to follow a court's instructions. That being the case, the court concluded that the jury's award of the amount stipulated to by the parties did not shock one's sense of justice. The Superior Court also rejected the trial court's reasoning that Mader was likely to incur additional medical expenses during the pendency of a new trial. The court concluded that the parties stipulated to the $444,525.56 in medical expenses from the time of injury until trial, and, while Mader would incur additional medical expense during the pendency of a new trial, the trial court's view disregarded the jury's award of $55,474.44 in future medical expenses. Thus, in the Superior Court's view, Mader had already been compensated for his future medical expenses, including those incurred during the pendency of a new trial.

As to damages for future medical expenses, the Superior Court reasoned that, because the award of $55,474.44 for future medical expenses was significantly closer to the projections of Duquesne Light's experts, it was apparent that the jury resolved the conflicting testimony in this regard in favor of Duquesne Light's witnesses, and that the record supported the jury's determination. Related thereto, the court found that the evidence established that, despite his injuries, Mader was able to travel and lead an active lifestyle, that the likelihood that Mader would have to undergo multiple knee and hip replacements, as his experts offered, was no greater than anyone else who, like Mader, had a pre-existing arthritic condition, and that, even if he needed surgery, it would not necessitate repeated knee and hip replacements. As the jury also heard testimony that Mader would not need the assistance of a personal assistant or a new home, which Mader's witnesses testified would be necessary, the Superior Court reasoned that the jury found...

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