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Duncan v. Kansas City Southern Railway

    Citation

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs were severely injured and one was killed when their church van collided with a locomotive. The jury awarded Plaintiffs $27,876,813.31 in damages. Kansas City Southern Railway (Defendant) appealed, claiming the award to be excessive.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The inquiry into a claim of excessive damages is whether or not the trier of fact abused its discretion in assessing the amount of damages. Vast discretion is given to the jury and the appellate courts should rarely disturb an award of general damages.

    Facts. A church van and a locomotive collided. Of the passengers in the van, one was killed, a second rendered quadriplegic, and a third suffered less serious injuries. Plaintiffs are the parents of the three passengers injured in the van. They sued Defendant for damages. Plaintiffs were awarded $27,876,813.31 which included future medical expenses of $17,000,000 and general damages for physical pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life in the amount of $8,000,000. Defendant appealed, claiming the damage award to be excessive.

    Issue. Was the damage award excessive?

    Held. Yes. Judgment for Defendant.
    * General damages are those that may not be fixed with pecuniary exactitude. They involve mental or physical pain or suffering, inconvenience, the loss of intellectual gratification or physical enjoyment or the loss of life or life style, which cannot be measured in monetary terms.
    * The inquiry into a claim of excessive damages is whether or not the trier of fact abused its discretion in assessing the amount of damages. Vast discretion is given to the jury and the appellate courts should rarely disturb an award of general damages.
    * Rachel, one passenger in the van, is now a quadriplegic because of the accident caused by Defendant. Prior to the accident, Rachel was an active eleven-year-old girl. She excelled in school, had friends, and liked outdoor activities. She was planning on attending college. Her whole life has changed. She is totally dependent on the care of others. She suffers from a host of serious and debilitating conditions and is a quadriplegic. Her older sister was killed in the accident and her younger sister was injured. She cannot attend school and she spends most of her day in a wheelchair. She requires 24-hour round the clock care. Even so, we find that the $8,000,000 is excessive. Similar cases with similar injuries have resulted in the highest award of $6,000,000. Therefore, we reduce the award to $6,000,000.
    * Future medical expenses must be established with some degree of certainty. Defendant contends that the $17 million award is clearly excessive. According to Defendant, if this award were invested, it would conservatively produce $850,000 per year. Here, the jury was presented with the costs of 24-hour care with Rachel having a life expectancy of a person without spinal cord injuries. Rachel was 14.6 at the time of the trial. A 15 year old with her conditions would have a life expectancy of 42.6 years. Accordingly, the court reduced her award to $10,528,722.

    Discussion. The main point of this case is that the standard for the appellate review of damage awards is abuse of discretion. However, in this case, the reduction of Plaintiff’s award of money damages appears to be somewhat arbitrary. In determining the loss of enjoyment of life and amount of damage, the court simply looked at past cases. They found the highest award to be $6 million and then set this as Plaintiffs’ maximum recovery.

    Black Letter Law: to view the black letter law, scroll down to the LexisNexis Headnotes of this case.   What’s a headnote?


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