7th Circuit affirms $0 judgment after previous ‘outrageous’ award of $1M

A man who was initially awarded $1 million by a jury for a run-of-the-mill car accident case will have to stick with the zero-dollar judgment he asked for in a new trial after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana found the original verdict to be “outrageous.”

Three months after being rear-ended by truck driver Robert Laducer, Richard Spinnenweber told his doctor he was suffering from tinnitus and bouts of short-term memory loss. Just days after the accident, Spinnenweber went to an urgent care center to treat neck pain and possibly tinnitus but had refused medical treatment at the scene of the accident.

Spinnenweber eventually sued Laducer and his employer, Red River Supply Inc., seeking compensatory damages for the physical injuries that the accident allegedly caused. However, he never asked for punitive damages, sought to recoup medical costs or lost wages, and didn’t make a claim for psychiatric, psychological, mental or emotional injuries.

During a trial, the only testimony Spinnenweber provided was his own and the recorded deposition testimony of his doctor and that of family and friends. Although the medical expert testified that Spinnenweber had whiplash from the accident, none of his other physical ailments were connected to the crash. Even so, a jury awarded him $1 million in compensatory damages.

The Indiana Northern District Court was “understandably shocked” by the verdict and granted the defendants’ motion for a new trial after they argued the award was “grossly excessive and unsupported by the evidence.” It offered Spinnenweber the choice of accepting $250,000 or a new trial, and he chose the latter. But when Spinnenweber presented no evidence and requested an award of $0 in damages at the new trial, described as a “verdict of silence,” the court granted it and a jury awarded him exactly that.

“The bizarre nature of these events is not lost on us. But Spinnenweber walked away with the $0 he asked for. And now, represented by counsel, he appeals his final judgment of $0 and the district court’s order granting Defendants’ motion for remittitur or a new trial,” Circuit Judge Michael Kanne wrote for the 7th Circuit.

Asking itself two questions, the 7th Circuit questioned whether the district court abused its discretion by finding that Spinnenweber’s evidence showed that he potentially suffered just whiplash and a mild concussion from the accident. It then asked whether the district court abused its discretion by finding that the $1 million verdict for those injuries was so outrageous that it warranted remittitur or a new trial.

The appellate panel ultimately answered no to both in the case of Richard Spinnenweber v. Robert Laducer and Red River Supply, Inc., 20-1534.

First, the 7th Circuit noted that because no expert testimony or other medical evidence linked Spinnenweber’s alleged head injury or tinnitus to the accident, it would have been conjecture or speculation for the jury to find that the crash caused those ailments. It further pointed out that given the whiplash and mild concussion Spinnenweber sustained, the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding the $1million verdict to be outrageous.

“We recognize that the result of our decision is that Spinnenweber gets no money on a claim for which Defendants conceded liability and indisputably owed him something — in the district court’s eyes, as much as $250,000. But Spinnenweber was hoisted with his own petard. He did not have to seek $0 in his second trial, and we can’t change that he did,” the 7th Circuit concluded.

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