Second Department Reduces Damages in Suffolk County Car Accident Suit

Cicola v. County of Suffolk, 2014 NY Slip Op 06293, involves a Suffolk County car accident in which an official vehicle being driven by an employee of Suffolk County hit the plaintiff’s vehicle, injuring him. At trial Mr. Cicola was able to prove that the accident resulted from negligence, and further was able to defeat the defendant’s attempts to convince the jury that his injuries were largely pre-existing and simply exacerbated by the accident. After the plaintiff’s win, the defendants appealed, seeking to have the verdict dismissed. They lost – the verdict stood. But, without much explanation or legal reasoning, the Appellate Division, Second Department, ordered damages reduced.

crash2.jpgWe opened with the brief summary of the case because there is not much more legally relevant information in the Second Department’s opinion. The defendants lost numerous motions. The jury found the plaintiff’s expert more credible than the defense expert. Defendants moved to have the verdict dismissed as “against the weight of the evidence,” They lost this attempt as well. Their appeal also largely fell flat, as they were unable to get the jury verdict imposing damages set aside. But the defendants were ultimately successful in having the Appellate Division forcibly lower the jury’s damage award.

It bears a paragraph to take a close look at those awards. Mr. Cicola (who injured his back in the accident) won from the jury two damage awards: $325,000 for “past pain and suffering” and $250,000 for “future pain and suffering.” The Second Department did not simply lower these damages. Rather, it directed that there would be a new trial solely on the issue of damages (not liability) unless the plaintiff agreed to a reduction to $150,000 for past pain and suffering, and $100,000 for future pain and suffering. Of course, because the court indicated that it would not be friendly to any higher amounts a second trial may lead, to the plaintiff may have felt compelled to accept the lowered damages.

On its face, the allowance made for a court to lower damages awarded by a jury may seem contrary to the immense faith we put into the civil jury system. To this jury, after hearing all of the evidence, this accident leading to a serious injury warranted the award given. Yet the Appellate Court disagreed.

The appellate court cites to CPLR 5501(c). This law allows appellate courts (specifically the mid-level appellate courts of the state, the so-called Appellate Divisions) to alter an award of money damages through the above-described “stipulate or new trial” process if the court finds the award to be “excessive or inadequate if it deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation.”

The concept of “reasonableness” is a common one in law, and typically a body of case law has been built up determining when something is or is not reasonable depending on the context in which the reasonableness concept is used. No lawyer would condemn a reasonableness analysis – but the Second Department might have done a service to future plaintiffs, defendants, and their attorneys by providing a bit more context as to why this award of damages was truly “excessive.”

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