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Seffert v. Los Angeles Transit Lines

    Brief Fact Summary.

    The door on a Los Angeles Transit Lines (Defendant) bus closed on Seffert’s (Plaintiff) right hand and left foot leading to severe injuries and permanent disability. Defendant appealed the award of damages.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    An appellate court should not reduce the damages awarded to a plaintiff unless the award is so large as to suggest that the jury was motivated by passion, prejudice, or corruption.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff’s right hand and left foot were caught when the door of a bus that she was attempting to board closed suddenly. Plaintiff was then dragged for some distance before being thrown to the pavement. As a result of this incident, Plaintiff suffered severe injuries. She had nine operations and was told that she may still have to have her left foot amputated. In an attempt to save the foot, several skin grafts were performed, but Plaintiff’s left heel remained severaly disfigured and had an open and continuously draining ulcer. Doctors then severed nerves and tied off blood vessels in the foot, placing Plaintiff in an awkward cast for a month while skin from her thigh was grafted onto her foot. After all of these procedures and eight months in the hospital and treatment centers, Plaintiff remained permanently disabled and expected continued pain and medical care for the rest of her life. At the time of the accident, Plaintiff had been a 42 year-old file clerk making $375 a month. Plaintiff eventually returned to work. In her lawsuit against Defendant, the bus line, Plaintiff claimed past and future medical bills and lost earnings of $53, 903.75. She also sought $100 in pain and suffering for each of the 660 days between the accident and the trial and $2000 in pain and suffering for each of the 34 years Plaintiff was expected to live. The jury found for the Plaintiff and awarded her the $187,903.75 she sought. Defendant moved for a new trial and when the trial judge denied it, appealed, arguing that the damages awarded were excessive.

    Issue.

    Should an appellate court reduce the damages awarded to a plaintiff on the basis that the award seems unusually large?

    Held.

    (Peters, J.) No. An appellate court should not reduce the damages awarded to a plaintiff unless the award is so large as to suggest that the jury was motivated by passion, prejudice, or corruption. Here, the jurors heard from witnesses regarding Plaintiff’s condition and were able to observe it for themselves. The award was upheld by the trial judge who also observed Plaintiff’s condition. The verdict here is larger than others, but each case must be evaluated individually. Plaintiff’s pain, embarrassment, emotional suffering, permanent disability, fear of future amputation, and certainty of the need for life-long medical care lead to the conclusion that the amount awarded is not excessive or likely the result of passion, prejudice, or corruption. It may be improper for Plaintiff’s attorney to have used a mathematical formula to reach the amount of damages owed for pain and suffering, but Defendant did not object at trial and used a similar method itself. Affirmed.

    Dissent.

    (Traynor, J.) The $134,000 awarded for pain and suffering is excessive and creates the suspicion that the jury was motivated by passion or prejudice. The jury seemingly accepted Plaintiff’s assessment of her damages without using its own common sense. It is unusual for an award for pain and suffering to be greater than the award for pecuniary loss. The award in this case is the largest in the state in a case of this type. Appellate courts should consider the effect of cases on future litigation. The excessive award in this case was the result of Plaintiff’s attorney’s mathematical formula on pain and suffering. Several states have found this argument improper. Although this approach provides a standard to jurors, it is not often an accurate one. Such conjecture may impress the jurors as it provides an easy method to calculate an award, but it is misleading and improper and should not be allowed just because the Defendant’s counsel failed to object and used a similar approach. The case should be remanded for a new trial on the issue of damages.

    Discussion.

    Justice Traynor’s dissent referenced the need to consider future litigation. He was clearly anticipating the astronomically high judgments awarded in the later 1960s and 1970s. Some argue that the multimillion dollar judgments are unwarranted and unreasonable. Proponents point to the rising costs of medical care, attorney’s fees and expenses in drawn out personal injury litigation, and the belief that money cannot adequately compensate a person for pain, suffering, and permanent disability to justify the high awards.


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