COA hears arguments in $25M wrongful death verdict

July 27, 2016

In a wrongful death case argued before the Indiana Court of Appeals Tuesday, the panel considered the questions of when are damages too high and when should an appellate court set aside a jury’s verdict?

The Lake County case, Maintenance Dynamics Inc., et al. v. Patricia Amsden, 45A05-1504-CT-000171, resulted in an award of $25 million for the wrongful death of Patricia Amsden’s husband Phillip. The National Law Journal cited the verdict as one of the top in 2015.

Phillip Amsden was killed in 2010. He had stopped along Interstate 65 to help a trucker fix a tire when Jeffrey Cleary, intoxicated, drove into Amsden’s vehicle and killed him instantly. Patricia Amsden filed a wrongful death claim against Cleary, his employer, and the two bars where Cleary had been drinking, Chulas, d/b/a/ Country Lounge and Giovanni’s Inc., d/b/a/ Giovanni’s.

Country Lounge was appealing its $7.5 million verdict, but the attorneys and judges Tuesday focused on the total $25 million amount. The judges were Patricia Riley, Rudolph Pyle III and James Kirsch.

Deborah Kapitan, attorney for the bar, argued the verdict was based on emotions rather than fact. The “excessive verdict” was not linked to any economic calculation like Phillip Amsden’s life expectance or future wages.

Riley questioned whether the Court of Appeals should overturn the jury’s verdict. “That was the value they put on it,” she said. “Why should we supplant our judgment for the judgment of the jury?”

Kapitan emphasized the jury was not provided with any evidence upon which it could arrive at $25 million.

Kirsch pointed out emotions are part of very case where there’s a loss of a spouse. “We don’t have fixed rules,” he said. “I don’t know what economist is going to come in and quantify the monetary value of the loss of a spouse.”

Kapitan replied, “I understand this doesn’t lend itself to mathematical certainty, I get that. But I’m saying when you leave this case with no hard evidence at all for the jury to consider and you leave it all to the loss of consortium, it lends itself to this high verdict that based solely on passion and sympathy.”

Attorney Stephen Phillips, representing Patricia Amsden, disputed the verdict was based solely on emotion.

“It’s not as though we stood up and we just (said) look, he was killed by a drunk who got hammered in two bars and you should give her a lot of money,” he told the judges. “We didn’t do that. We gave them evidence.”

Patricia Amsden had asked for a minimum of $14 million during the trial.

Kirsch queried Phillips on the verdict of $25 million. Calling the amount a “shocking proportion,” he asked what the Court of Appeals should consider if no other appellate court in Indiana or the United States has a loss of consortium claim for $25 million.

Phillips replied the court should look at the evidence in this particular case rather than past decisions.

However, Pyle interjected that prior cases give the court boundaries to follow. He questioned Phillips, “If no one in the United States, on a loss of consortium claim, has even approached $25 million, what does that say to us or what should that say to us in our common law system?”

Phillips responded by returning to the court’s earlier line of questioning of when jury verdicts should be overturned, noting that court’s should look at the evidence of the particular case.

 “ … [T]he Supreme Court of Indiana has said multiple times that appellate courts and supreme courts and trial courts should be very, very, very loath to set aside a jury verdict unless they can find a really good reason,” he said.


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