Plaintiffs were severely burned in a house fire caused by a defective heater. Plaintiffs sued the manufacturers of the heater to recover for their burn injuries. A jury awarded plaintiffs $2,000,000 in compensatory damages. Defendants moved for a new trial, or in the alternative, remittitur.
The maximum recovery rule dictates that a trial judge may determine whether an award of damages exceeds the maximum amount which a reasonable jury would properly award, and if it does, then the judge may reduce the amount of damages awarded.
The Britain family’s home was destroyed by a fire caused by a defective heater. Mildred Britain and her infant daughter, Helen, were severely burned. Helen almost died in the fire and ended up suffering permanent injuries. She was hospitalized for twenty-eight days and required skin graft surgery, which was only partially successful. Third-degree burns covering most of her scalp and her left hand suffered a deformity as the result of scarring. Mildred sued Sears, Roebuck & Co. (“Sears”), the heater’s manufacturers, on behalf of herself and Helen for damages. The jury awarded the Britain family $2,000,000 in compensatory damages. Sears believed that the jury’s award was excessive. The company moved for a new trial, or in the alternative, remittitur.
Whether an award of $2,000,000 in compensatory damages exceeded the maximum amount of recovery?
No, the nature and extent of plaintiffs’ injuries justified the jury’s award of damages. The defendants’ motions for remittitur are denied.
The legal standard to gauge for remittitur is the maximum recovery rule. This rule requires a judge to determine whether the award of damages exceeds the maximum amount which a reasonable jury would find, and if it does, the judge may reduce the verdict to the highest amount that the jury could have properly awarded. There are five elements to assess the damages: (1) past physical and mental pain, (2) future physical and mental pain, (3) future medical expenses, (4) loss of earning capacity, and (5) permanent disability and disfigurement. Here, Helen suffered burns to over forty percent of her body. She required numerous hospitalizations for skin grafting and to repair deformities caused by her burns. As a result of her injuries, she will continue to suffer severe pain and limitation of motion. Her injuries may lead her to “always be subjected to rejection, stares and tactless inquiries.” She will continue to need the guidance, treatment, and counseling of various doctors. Twenty-seven operations were still needed for her injuries. Her disabilities would cause her the inability to earn a living for the rest of her life. The $2,000,000 award was therefore not excessive. In fact, the evidence could have supported a greater award of $2,980,000. Remittitur is denied.