Murray v. Whitcraft

Decision Date19 December 2012
Docket NumberNo. DA 11–0749.,DA 11–0749.
PartiesTyson MURRAY, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Kyle Dean WHITCRAFT, Defendant and Appellee.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

For Appellant: Nathan J. Hoines, Eric Biehl, Hoines Law Office, PC, Great Falls, Montana.

For Appellee: Paul R. Haffeman, Davis, Hatley, Haffeman & Tighe, P.C., Great Falls, Montana.

Justice BETH BAKER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

[367 Mont. 365]¶ 1 On October 17, 2006, Tyson Murray was a passenger in a car driven by Kyle Dean Whitcraft. Whitcraft lost control of the vehicle, causing a single vehicle collision in which Murray was injured. Murray filed a complaint against Whitcraft seeking damages for injuries allegedly caused by Whitcraft's negligence. Following a three-day jury trial in August 2011, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Murray and awarded him $27,000. The sole issue on appeal is whether the District Court abused its discretion in denying Murray's motion for a new trial. We affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 2 On October 17, 2006, Whitcraft was driving back to Jamestown College in North Dakota accompanied by two college acquaintances, Kyle Rector and Tyson Murray. All three young men lived in either Lewistown or Great Falls, Montana, and they had traveled home together for a long weekend. Shortly after leaving Lewistown, Whitcraft lost control of the vehicle on the icy road and struck the guardrail several times. The impact of the vehicle on the guardrail injured both passengers and totaled Whitcraft's vehicle. Whitcraft's father picked up the young men and returned them to Lewistown where Rector and Murray visited the emergency room. Murray was diagnosed with probable neck and right shoulder strain or contusion. Whitcraft subsequently admitted to being legally responsible for the accident.

¶ 3 Murray, an excellent student, was attending Jamestown College with assistance from an annual financial aid package of nearly $7,000, which included a $500 baseball scholarship. Upon returning to Jamestown, he informed his coach and trainer of the accident and immediately began sports rehabilitation. Despite attempts to rehabilitate his shoulder, Murray was unable to play baseball for the rest of the semester. After experiencing no substantial improvement by January 2007, Murray withdrew from Jamestown College and returned to live with his parents in Great Falls, where he continued to take classes at a local college while undergoing treatment for his shoulder. Despite an open offer from the college, Murray did not return to Jamestown as his injury did not resolve and he was not able to play baseball anymore. He underwent chiropractic treatment until June 2007, and was discharged from all active medical care by January 15, 2008.

¶ 4 In October 2008, the pain in Murray's shoulder returned after a day of bow hunting. He returned to the doctor and was prescribed more diagnostic tests and physical therapy.

¶ 5 On October 15, 2009, Murray filed a complaint against Whitcraft seeking damages for medical costs, past, present and future pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and activity, emotional distress, and other compensatory damages arising from the injury sustained in the accident. A jury trial was held August 24–26, 2011. Murray sought damages in the suggested amount of $250,000, including past medical expenses of approximately $35,000. At the conclusion of trial, the jury determined that the accident caused injury to Murray and awarded Murray a total of $27,000 in damages.

¶ 6 Murray, having presented evidence of past medical expenses totaling $35,030.19, filed a motion for a new trial on the issue of damages. He asserted that the jury's total damages award of $27,000 was supported by insufficient evidence and that, during closing argument, defense counsel “argued matters that were outside of the record.” The District Court did not act on Murray's motion and it was deemed denied by operation of law after sixty days. M.R. Civ. P. 59(f).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 7 We review de novo a district court's denial of a motion for a new trial on the ground of insufficient evidence. Styren Farms, Inc. v. Roos, 2011 MT 299, ¶ 11, 363 Mont. 41, 265 P.3d 1230 (citations omitted). “Our function in reviewing the sufficiency of proof of actual damages is to determine whether there is substantial credible evidence in the record to support the jury's verdict. We must view the evidence in a light most favorable to ... the prevailing party below, and where the record presents conflicting evidence, resolved by the jury, this Court is precluded from disturbing the verdict.” Lauman v. Lee, 192 Mont. 84, 88–89, 626 P.2d 830, 833 (1981). See also Styren Farms, ¶ 11;Ele v. Ehnes, 2003 MT 131, ¶ 25, 316 Mont. 69, 68 P.3d 835. Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind may find adequate to support a conclusion; “it may be less than a preponderance of the evidence, but must be more than a ‘mere scintilla.’ Styren Farms, ¶ 11.

¶ 8 When the basis of a motion for new trial is an irregularity in the proceedings, we review the denial of the motion for a manifest abuse of discretion. Styren Farms, ¶ 12.

DISCUSSION

¶ 9 Is Murray entitled to a new trial?

¶ 10 Jury Instruction No. 15 required the jury to determine whether Whitcraft's admitted negligence caused Murray's injuries and then to calculate the amount of money that would reasonably compensate Murray “for all of the loss caused by Defendant ....” (Emphasis added.) The instruction stated:

Provided that the evidence shows that they exist and that the cause of which was the accident in question, the damages should include:

1. Past and Future Health Care Expenses: reasonable value of necessary care, treatment and services received and those reasonably probable to be required in the future.

2. Past and Future Pain and Suffering: reasonable compensation for any pain and suffering experienced and reasonably probable to be experienced in the future by Tyson Murray....

3. Past and Future Emotional Distress: reasonable compensation for any mental and emotional suffering and distress experience[d] by Tyson Murray and reasonably probable to be experienced in the future....

4. Alteration of Established Course of Life: If you find that Tyson Murray has been permanently injured or will continue to suffer in the future from his injuries, you should award reasonable compensation for the diminution and loss of enjoyment of life and for the diminution and loss of established course of life.

Murray argues that, upon determining that Whitcraft's negligence caused Murray's injury, the jury was required to award the full amount of uncontested damages he alleged, which spanned all four categories listed in the instruction. He contends that, [t]he jury failed to award full damages encompassing the past medicals, and simply did not follow the law given in Jury Instruction No. 15.” Whitcraft argues the jury was not obligated to award all four types of damages and points out that the verdict does not specify “the precise nature of the injury the jury found to be accident-related, nor how much it awarded for the various damage categories alleged.”

¶ 11 The instruction directed the jury to calculate the amount of accident-caused injuries, [p]rovided the evidence shows that they exist,” falling into any of the four categories. It did not provide that damages must be awarded in each of the four categories but instead made clear that the jury should award damages only for those injuries shown to be caused by Whitcraft's admitted negligence. The jury also was instructed that Murray had the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence “the amount of money that will compensate him for his injuries and damages caused by Defendant Kyle Whitcraft.”

¶ 12 Having reviewed the instructions, the jurors completed a verdict form that directed them to answer two questions—whether the accident was “the cause of injury to Tyson Murray and, if so, [w]hat is the total amount of money which will compensate the Plaintiff for his damages?” Thus, after checking the box “Yes” as to whether the accident caused injury to Murray, the jurors were asked only to provide a total damages figure, which they calculated at $27,000. The verdict form did not ask the jury to itemize damages across the four categories listed in Jury Instruction No. 15, nor did it inquire as to the extent to which Murray's injuries were caused by “the accident in question”—leaving this instead as a “yes” or “no” question. This general verdict form—to which Murray did not specifically object—does not permit us to ascertain the individual categories of damages from which the jury derived its total award.1See Horn v. Bull River Country Store Props., 2012 MT 245, ¶ 25, 366 Mont. 491, 288 P.3d 218 ([W]e certainly will not speculate when the verdict form does not explain the jury's thought process.”) (quoting Seltzer v. Morton, 2007 MT 62, ¶ 97, 336 Mont. 225, 154 P.3d 561) (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶ 13 Murray's contention that the jury was obligated to award damages for all of his alleged accident-related injuries assumes that, by answering “Yes” to the first question, the jury found that Whitcraft's negligence was the only cause of those injuries—an assumption Whitcraft disputed at trial. Whitcraft presented evidence and cross-examined Murray's key witnesses to suggest that the collision had caused little, if any, impact to Murray's shoulder, and that Murray had re-injured the shoulder on a later occasion while bow hunting.

¶ 14 Whitcraft presented photographs to show that the damage occurred primarily to the front driver's side of the vehicle, where Whitcraft had been sitting, yet the force of the collision did not cause Whitcraft any injury or cause the air bags to deploy. Additionally, Whitcraft's cross-examination of Murray and Gregory Tierney, MD, the orthopedic surgeon who examined and...

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