Bases for Jurors’ Verdicts

Two recently issued appellate court cases come down on different sides of the issue of how much leeway to give jurors in assessing the value of cases before them.

Case #1: Jury’s Verdict Upheld although no competent proof provided

The First District Appellate Court just issued one of those opinions which makes one scratch his head and wonder what lesson is to be learned. Among other significant issues, the appellate court in Diaz v. Legat Architects, Inc., ___ Ill. App. 3d ___ (1st dist. Nos. 1-08-3622 & 1-08-3635 Cons. December 14, 2009) was faced with a trial judge who entered a remittitur of a jury verdict by eliminating the award for future medical expenses. The trial judge ruled that the plaintiff had failed to present competent proof of the costs of future expenses after the court struck the testimony of a physician because he could not state with reasonable certainty what those expenses would be.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court that the testimony of the physician witness should be stricken as speculative. One would think that ends the matter, but the appellate court still ended up awarding the jury’s award for future medical expenses. As best I can tell, there is no good explanation for the appellate court’s decision in this regard. The appellate court merely noted the following: “Given that his past medical bills were $132,000 for the 6 years between his accident and the trial in this case and that his life expectancy was 21 years, an award of $201,000 for future medical expenses was supported by the evidence.”

It is difficult to understand how the jury’s award of future medical expenses could have been proper if the appellate court just held that there was no competent evidence (i.e., testimony of an expert physician) to support the claim for future medical expenses. In essence, the appellate court seems to be saying that because the plaintiff had past medical expenses and the doctors testified he would need future medical care, it is acceptable to let the jury guesstimate the amount of future expenses.

The opinion includes several other substantive holdings, each of which is independently important, but the issue relating to the proof of future medical expenses is disturbing. Jury verdicts must be based on competent proofs and if either party neglects to put in that evidence, then the jury can’t be permitted to just “eyeball” it.

Case #2: Jury’s Verdict stricken as based on prejudicial appeals to emotion

The First District issued a second important case on the same day as Case #1 in Pleasance v. City of Chicago, ___ Ill. App. 3d ___ (1st dist. No. 1-08-1510 December 14, 2009). This was a suit filed on behalf of a man who was killed following a wrongful shooting by a Chicago police officer. In a case against a governmental entity, the city cannot be held liable unless it was shown that the action was willful and wanton misconduct. Rather than fight on the issue of liability, however, the City admitted liability in order to proceed to trial solely on the evaluation of appropriate damages. The jury submitted a verdict of $12.5 million.

On appeal, the City argued that the jury’s verdict was the result of improper comments made by the plaintiff’s attorney which repeatedly referred to the extreme nature of the police officer’s conduct, in spite of a motion in limine preventing such comments. The trial court permitted too many of those comments in spite of objections by the defense. The plaintiff’s closing argument pleaded that it was the jury’s duty to defend the legal system from “abuse” and “injustice,” that it should send a message to the community regarding police conduct in general, that it needed to analyze how the police subverted our laws, and to consider the police officer’s conduct or state of mind. Plaintiff’s counsel even quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. By suggesting the jury needed to do justice to make up for the police department’s manner of conduct. Plaintiff’s counsel made several references to the officer’s conduct as willful and wanton.

The appellate court agreed with the defendant, reversing the judgment entered on the jury’s verdict and ordering a new trial. The appellate court strongly emphasized that verdicts cannot be the result of appeals to passion or emotion. It also noted that whether the police officer’s conduct was willful and wanton was irrelevant because the City had already admitted liability. Determining whether the officer acted willfully and wantonly could only properly serve to determine if the defendant should be held liable, which was already moot because of the admission of liability.

The appellate court quoted an elegantly stated passage from an earlier case as follows:

“The province of the jury is the resolution of factual issues in the narrow context of the case before them, not the rendering of moral or social judgments in the verdict form. The purpose of argument by counsel is to assist the jury fairly, deliberately and impartially to arrive at the truth of the facts submitted to them for their decision. It is error for counsel to indulge in assertions which appeal to the passions of the jury and have no bearing or relation to the case whatsoever.”

I know the attorney who represented the plaintiff in this case and I know him to be a truly excellent lawyer and a good person. I saw him on television soon after the opinion was issued and he complained that the appellate court was wrong in its holding and that the opinion does an injustice to those who have been harmed. Respectfully, I disagree, and this should not be a plaintiff vs. defendant issue. All of us should strive to have verdicts which are not the result of passion or emotion, and if an improper verdict is entered because of those emotions, it is properly voided. There is no doubt whatsoever that the plaintiff attempted to appeal to those emotions by making reference to things which were not in evidence and were irrelevant to the decision making process.

In my opinion, the judges who decided Case #1 have a different perspective than those who decided Case #2. The second case is founded upon the concept that jurors shall reach conclusions based only upon relevant, competent proof. The first case assumes that even when there is a failure of proof, the court must step in to protect the injured party to allow the jury to decide on a non-evidentiary basis.

One of my mentors told me early in my career that whatever is relevant to the case must be allowed to see the light of day. He told me that if that evidence is harmful to my client, “let the chips fall where they may” but at least the justice system must be protected. In order to promote understanding and respect for our legal system, we must insist that “competent evidence” rule the day — let the chips fall where they may.

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