Justices: Teen injured in crash failed to mitigate damages, but trial court erred in damages reduction

Two former classmates battling in court over damages stemming from a 2016 car accident each took home a partial victory from the Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday. The justices ruled that a trial court properly reduced the suing student’s damages for her failure to mitigate, but also found the that trial court erred in its reduction of those damages when it considered prior injuries in violation of the “eggshell-skull doctrine.”

The case of Sydney Renner v. Trevor J. Shepard-Bazant, 21S-CT-138, began when Trevor Shepard-Bazant struck the back of 18-year-old Sydney Renner’s vehicle while the two classmates were stopped in traffic. Renner’s vehicle then struck the vehicle in front of her, but she told a responding officer that she was physically fine.

However, Renner developed a severe headache. Subsequent visits to the emergency room and her family doctor revealed that Renner had a concussion — her third in as many years. She was referred to physical therapy and was advised to rest.

Even so, Renner attended her senior prom days later, followed by an after-prom trip to an amusement park. Both events caused Renner to develop headaches, and the roller coasters caused memory loss.

“During the following months, Sydney was treated by several healthcare providers. Sometimes she followed their advice, other times she did not,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote Tuesday. He added that Renner suffered two additional head injuries the following summer, and she attributed difficulties in college to her injuries.

Thus, Renner sued Shepard-Bazant and won default judgment. She requested more than $600,000 in damages but was awarded $132,000, with the Lake Superior Court finding she had failed to mitigate her damages by not following medical advice. The trial court denied a subsequent motion to correct errors.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in Renner’s favor, remanding for a retrial on damages. The high court then heard oral arguments in June.

In the Tuesday opinion, the justices first held that the trial court properly reduced Renner’s damages award. It looked to its recent opinion in Humphrey v. Tuck, 151 N.E.3d 1203 (Ind. 2020), which held that “a party arguing for a mitigation-of-damages jury instruction ‘need only point to some evidence in the record that when viewed most favorably [to the party] would suffice for a reasonable juror to decide the issue in the party’s favor.’”

Addressing a related issue in the instant case, “we find that the evidence of Sydney’s post-accident behavior was sufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that she failed to exercise reasonable care and that her failure caused harm,” Goff wrote.

“In this case, no expert directly attributed any of the harm to Sydney’s failure to follow post-concussion protocol,” the justice wrote. “However, many of her own experts testified that the failure to follow the protocols would extend the healing process and make healing more difficult. Since no expert was able to directly opine that Sydney’s conduct didn’t cause additional harm, and experts did testify Sydney may have extended or exacerbated her symptoms, the trial court permissibly weighed the evidence before it to determine that her conduct did cause her harm.

“… Based on this evidence, it was reasonable for the trial court to infer that Sydney’s failure to follow her doctors’ instructions exacerbated her symptoms and prolonged her recovery. Although Trevor could not quantify how much harm Sydney suffered from her decisions to disregard her doctors’ orders, this evidence, as in Tuck, was sufficient for the finder of fact to reasonably conclude that Sydney’s failure to follow her doctors’ orders cause ‘a discreet, identifiable harm,’” Goff wrote.

Similarly, Renner failed to show that all of her injuries, including poor academic performance, were caused by Shepard-Bazant’s negligence. The court pointed to her post-accident head injuries and her “poor study habits.”

However, the high court remanded for a retrial on damages, finding the trial court abused its discretion when it reduced her damages for her two pre-accident concussions.

“Because a defendant must take the plaintiff as he finds her … Trevor is liable to ‘the extent to which his conduct has resulted in an aggravation of the pre-existing condition,’” Goff wrote. “… Because the evidence, taken favorably to the trial court’s judgment, did not show that Sydney’s prior concussions independently caused the harm she suffered after the accident, the trial court should have applied the eggshell-skull rule and should not have reduced Sydney’s damages on account of her two prior concussions.”

On remand, the trial court must recalculate damages “considering the eggshell-skull to determine the extent to which Trevor’s conduct resulted in an aggravation of Sydney’s pre-existing condition.”

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