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Georgia Court of Appeals Upholds $10.9 Million Car Accident Verdict

In personal injury cases you often hear about damages for “pain and suffering.” This includes mental as well as physical pain. While there is obviously no precise way to quantify such non-economic injuries, there are certain legal guidelines judges and juries must follow when determining such awards.

Warnock v. Sandford

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this subject. In Warnock v. Sandford, a jury awarded nearly $11 million in damages to an auto accident victim for his physical and mental pain and suffering. The defendant appealed, alleging the judge improperly instructed the jury as to the law.

Here is some additional background. The accident took place in September 2009. The plaintiff and defendant were driving towards the same intersection. The defendant failed to obey a stop sign, however, and collided with the plaintiff’s vehicle.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant. The complaint alleged “negligence and gross negligence” on the part of the defendant. At trial, the judge instructed the jury as follows:

In evaluating the plaintiff’s pain and suffering, you may consider the following factors, if proven: interference with normal living; interference with enjoyment of life; loss of capacity to labor and earn money; impairment of bodily health and vigor; fear of extent of injury; shock of impact; actual pain and suffering, past and future; mental anguish, past and future; and the extent to which the plaintiff must limit activities.

The defense maintained this instruction was inadequate. Nevertheless, that was the instruction given. The jury ultimately returned a verdict holding the defendant 75% liable for the plaintiff’s damages, which it calculated at $7 million for pain and suffering and an additional $4 million for future pain and suffering. After accounting for the plaintiff’s relative fault, that left the defendant on the hook for $10,912,500.

Before the Court of Appeals, the defendant renewed his argument that the jury instruction was inadequate. More precisely, the defendant said the judge should have told the jury it could award damages for emotional distress “only to the extent that it was caused by his actual physical injuries.” Put another way, the defense argued the jury could only compensate the plaintiff for emotional distress related to, say, a physical brain injury, rather than his “emotional reaction to the consequences of his injuries.”

Essentially, the Court of Appeals said the defense argued for the application of what is known as the “impact rule” in Georgia law. The impact rule normally applies to claims for “negligent infliction of emotional distress.” In this case, the plaintiff did not pursue such a claim. Rather, his lawsuit was based on “straightforward claims of negligence and gross negligence.” Given this, the appeals court said the trial judge’s instructions were appropriate.

To put it bluntly, all the plaintiff needed to prove was that his “mental pain and suffering” were the result of the defendant’s negligence. The plaintiff did so, at least according to the jury. The Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the jury’s verdict and award of damages.