Justices uphold $40K damages verdict despite challenged jury instruction

A man awarded $40,000 after a crash involving an 18-wheeler will not get a second damages trial after the Indiana Supreme Court rejected his challenge to a damages-mitigation jury instruction.

The high court granted transfer and affirmed the trial court’s ruling Tuesday in Patrick Humphrey v. Brian Tuck, US Xpress, Inc., 20S-CT-548.

Plaintiff Patrick Humphrey sued U.S. Xpress Inc. and its employee, Brian Tuck, after Tuck’s tractor-trailer sideswiped Humphrey’s rental car. Humphrey later discovered a sliver of glass in his eye, and a subsequent MRI revealed a tumor that a doctor warned could cause blindness.

Humphrey continued to experience symptoms, including a hormonal imbalance. However, he waited more than a year to begin injections that improved his condition.

When Humphrey filed suit, he alleged the accident with Tuck caused a pre-existing tumor to swell. He raised claims of negligence, negligence per se and respondeat superior, while Tuck and US Xpress admitted fault.

That left the question of damages, which the defendants claimed Humphrey failed to mitigate. Over Humphrey’s objection, the Jackson Superior Court gave a jury instruction proffered by the defendants: “A plaintiff must use reasonable care to minimize his damages after he is injured. The Plaintiff may not recover for any item of damage that he could have avoided through the use of reasonable care. The Defendant has the burden of proving by the greater weight of evidence that the plaintiff failed to sue reasonable care to minimize his damages. Do not consider failure to minimize damages as fault. Rather you may consider failure to minimize damages to reduce the amount of damages that the plaintiff claims.”

The jury ultimately awarded Humphrey $40,000 in damages, and the trial court denied his subsequent motion to correct error. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, previously reversed and remanded for a new damages trial, agreeing with Humphrey than the mitigation instruction was not supported by evidence.

But in reinstating the trial court’s entry of judgment on the $40,000 verdict, the Supreme Court noted that “the party seeking an instruction need only produce some evidence – a ‘scintilla’ – of each element of the underlying claim or defense.”

“We agree with Tuck and U.S. Xpress that there was sufficient evidence to support instructing the jury on their defense of failure to mitigate damages,” Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote for the court. “As to Humphrey’s vision, he testified that he had no vision problems before the accident. Since the accident, he complains of vision problems that, he says, limit his ability to drive a vehicle; make it harder for him to see at night, especially if it is raining; and affect his ability to read signs and see peripherally.

“Yet even with these vision issues, Humphrey has not worn corrective eyeglasses or contacts – despite having a prescription for glasses that he never filled,” Slaughter continued. “For the past year, he did not return to the optometrist to get a new prescription, despite acknowledging that new glasses ‘may’ help his vision. … Under our minimal standard for instructing the jury, this is enough evidence to allow a lay jury to consider whether Humphrey’s vision would have improved had he either filled an existing prescription for eyeglasses or obtained a new prescription.”

The justices found a similar failure to mitigate Humphrey’s complaint of a hormonal imbalance, including his delay in beginning treatment.

Relying on Willis v. Westerfield, 839 N.E.2d 1179 (Ind. 2006), the justices thus held that “it was up to the jury to determine whether, and to what extent, Humphrey was injured due to the defendants’ negligence and, likewise, whether, and to what extent, Humphrey failed to mitigate his own damages.”

“For these reasons, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in giving the failure-to-mitigate instruction,” Slaughter concluded. “Thus, we affirm its judgment, including its denial of Humphrey’s motion to correct error.”

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