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O’Gee v. Dobbs Houses, Inc.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff sued Defendant, claiming negligence for injuries sustained when she was latching a cold buffet back into its appropriate location because Defendant failed to secure the buffet. The jury ruled in Plaintiff’s favor, awarding her $170,000. The trial judge denied Defendant’s motion challenging the damages. Defendant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A court of appeals may review a damages award and, if it is deemed excessive, reduce it.

    Facts.

    Kathleen O’Gee (Plaintiff) was a flight attendant for United Airlines. While working on a flight in April 1972, she injured her back while latching a cold buffet back into its appropriate location in the plane’s cabin. Dobbs Houses, Inc. (Defendant) put the buffet on the plane and failed to latch it in its appropriate place. Over the course of the next year, Plaintiff suffered from significant back pain. She spent much of the time bedridden and was unable to work. After consulting with several doctors, she received surgery on her back. Following the surgery, United Airlines reassigned her to work on smaller aircraft. She performed with distinction in this new role and was cited for her perfect attendance records in 1975 and 1976. Plaintiff sued Defendant in federal district court, claiming negligence in failing to secure the buffet. After a seven-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff’s favor, awarding her $170,000 in damages. Defendant challenged the damages award. The motion was denied by the trial judge, who noted that any verdict of $200,000 or less would be sustained. Defendant appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether a court of appeals has the authority to review a jury’s damages award and reduce it if it is deemed to be excessive.

    Held.

    Yes. The trial court is ordered to hold a new trial on damages unless Plaintiff accepts a damages award of $85,000, one-half of the trial jury’s award. A court of appeals may review a damages award and, if it is deemed excessive, reduce it.

    Concurrence.

    (Feinberg, J.): While the majority here is correct that the court of appeals has the ability to examine jury verdicts for excessiveness, in this case the majority improperly limits its view of the basis of damages to lost wages. There is significant evidence of Plaintiff’s substantial pain and suffering as a result of her injury. Further, her future lifestyle has been significantly impaired as a result of her injury. This evidence is sufficient to support the jury’s damages award.

    Discussion.

    When a jury hands down a damages award, a court of appeals has the ability to review that award for excessiveness. This is not a plenary power, and the court of appeals must give significant deference to the judgment of the trial court. The lower court, with its assessment of the evidence presented by both parties at trial, is in a better position to determine whether a damages award is excessive. The court of appeals must examine whether a particular damages award constitutes a denial of justice to a defendant. While the trial judge does receive some deference, a court of appeals is capable of setting an upper limit on what is a proper damages award. In this case, Plaintiff only claimed $10,000 in lost wages. She claimed no loss of future wages and by all accounts is flourishing professionally after her surgery. While Plaintiff does claim damages for “humiliation” due to her having to work on smaller aircraft, this is not sufficient to warrant a $170,000 judgment. Therefore, the decision of the lower court is reversed.


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