New York's “no-fault” insurance laws require a car accident victim to demonstrate a “serious injury” before suing a negligent party for damages. The legal burden is initially on the plaintiff to prove the existence of a serious injury, and if the defendant fails to rebut that proof, a jury may award damages to the plaintiff. However, New York courts may reduce a damage award if it is not “reasonable under the circumstances.”
Determining “Reasonable” Compensation for Pain and Suffering
For example, the Appellate Division, Second Department, recently rejected part of a jury award to a car accident victim while upholding the underlying verdict in the plaintiff's favor. The lawsuit arose from a January 2009 car accident where the defendant's car struck the plaintiff's vehicle at an intersection. The defendant's car was owned by the New York Police Department, so the plaintiff sued both the driver and the city.
At trial, the plaintiff presented significant evidence that he suffered a “substantial injury” as required by the no-fault law. An orthopedic surgeon testified the plaintiff suffered from severe back pain following the car accident, which eventually required the implantation of a spinal cord stimulator. A second surgeon testified that the plaintiff also required knee surgery to repair a “whole lot” of cartilage damage caused by the accident.
For their part, the defendants presented no evidence of their own to refute or discredit the plaintiff's medical testimony. Instead, the defendants simply moved to dismiss the case, claiming the plaintiff had failed to produce sufficient evidence of a substantial injury. The trial judge rejected that motion, and the jury went on to find the defendants were 85% responsible for the accident. The jury further awarded the plaintiff over $1.2 million in damages.
On appeal, the Second Department upheld the jury's verdict with respect to the defendants' liability. The court noted the plaintiff presented two expert witnesses who offered a “valid qualitative assessment of the plaintiff's condition” based on objective medical evidence, not merely opinion or speculation. The jury was entitled to conclude from this evidence that the plaintiff had suffered a “serious injury.”
As for the damage award, the Second Department found the jury's calculation of damages “unreasonable” given the facts of the case. The jury awarded the plaintiff $600,000 for past pain and suffering, and another $500,000 for estimated pain and suffering over the next 20 years. The appeals court ordered a new trial on damages unless the plaintiff stipulated to a reduced award of $400,000 for past pain and suffering, and $350,000 for future pain and suffering.