Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Second Circuit wants Walter House to recover damages

Here's a rare appellate case that talks in detail about how to prove damages for pain and suffering in a personal injury case. This decision is worth reading for civil rights lawyers also, since the principles are the same.

The case is House v. Kent Worldwide Machine Works, a summary order decided on January 4. House won his case on default; Kent Worldwide did not defend the case. House moved for damages in this serious personal injury case which involved horrible physical injuries and substantial pain and suffering. While the district court did not award House any damages for pain and suffering, the Court of Appeals (Sack, Wesley and Keenan [D.J.]) remands the case for reconsideration on this issue.

Of course, you have to prove damages. You can't just assume that the court will take your word for it. Plaintiff's lawyer evidently did not authenticate the medical records that would have supported a damages award. The Second Circuit strongly criticizes counsel for this omission. But one of plaintiff's doctors did submit an affidavit which detailed House's "harrowing medical odyssey" which includes amputated limbs, among other things. Plaintiff and his wife also submitted affidavits which detailed his injuries, including physical and psychological injuries which, really, no one should have to endure. These damages include loss of consortium, defined as "a more intangible yet more significant injury to the partner who suffers the loss of the relationship as it existed before the injury." This evidence resembles that which suffices in state court for damages awards, so the district court got it wrong in rejecting plaintiff's arguments.

Plaintiff also sought damages for future pain and suffering. He submitted actuarial tables from the government to show his life expectancy. The district court rejected this evidence for reasons that don't make a whole lot of sense (plaintiff used the 2006 table but not the 2007 table). As the Court of Appeals notes, "it is unreasonable to conclude that the estimated life estimated life expectancy for healthy white males under age 40 in the United States would change so materially between 2006 and 2007 that the 2006 tables could provide no credible basis on which to estimate Walter House's remaining life expectancy." In other words, there ain't much difference between the two tables, and that minor difference is no basis to deny this guy any damages.

Finally, the Court of Appeals frowns upon the district court's apparent belief that "Walter's medical expenses were a necessary predicate for the pain and suffering award." In fact, state courts have awarded past pain and suffering based on the medical procedures endured and the nature of the injury suffered. The affidavits described above were enough for these damages.

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