California Court of Appeals Rules on Noneconomic Damages and Prejudgment Interest in Car Accident Case

In a recent case certified for publication in part, the California Court of Appeal held that the prejudgment interest should apply only to damages in a personal injury lawsuit, and not to costs. The court also rejected the defendant’s claims of error concerning the jury instruction and the alleged misconduct of the plaintiff’s trial counsel.

Eric Lazear, an employee of Pacific Coast Elevator Corporation, collided with Daniel Bean’s truck while Mr. Bean was stopped at a red light. Mr. Bean suffered serious injuries and sued Pacific Coast. Mr. Bean was awarded $1,271,594.74 in damages, including $126,594.74 in economic damages and $1,145,000 in noneconomic damages. The trial court granted Mr. Bean’s motion for prejudgment interest and awarded him $34,830 in costs.

On appeal, Pacific Coast claims that the jury’s noneconomic award is excessive, that the trial court erred in its jury instructions, and that Mr. Bean’s counsel committed misconduct during the trial. Pacific Coast also contends that the trial court erred in their award of prejudgment interest on costs.

The published portion of the opinion holds that the trial court erred in awarding prejudgment interest on costs. The unpublished portion of the opinion rejects the remainder of Pacific Coast’s claims.

In this case, Mr. Lazear struck the rear of Mr. Bean’s truck with his vehicle, and he stated that he did not see Mr. Bean’s truck prior to the impact. After the incident, Mr. Bean was taken to the hospital and allegedly suffered extreme pain. Medical evaluations determined that he suffered severe neck pain, spasms in his upper trapezius, and limited range of motion in his neck.

Mr. Bean was involved in another automobile accident, and immediately following this second accident, he suffered extreme pain. Additional medical treatment and spinal surgery helped Mr. Bean increase his range of motion and comfort level. His restrictions following the surgery included limiting his activity level and resulted in a change of his lifestyle. In addition to the physical limitations, Mr. Bean suffers from depression and does not socially engage with his friends as much as he did prior to the accidents.

Regarding Pacific Coast’s claim that the jury award of noneconomic damages is excessive and not supported by the evidence, the appeal court stated that a plaintiff is entitled to recover for grief, anxiety, worry, shock, and terror, among other things. This is a subjective determination, within the discretion of the jury. While Pacific Coast argues that the accident was “minor” and that Mr. Bean had “almost fully recovered” prior to the second accident, the Court disagreed. Pointing to the major injuries suffered by Mr. Bean, the court stated that he required a spinal fusion surgery and spinal injections. Additionally, Mr. Bean suffered from extreme pain and continues to suffer chronic pain. Notably, Mr. Bean presented expert testimony at trial that the first accident, for which Pacific Cost was liable, accounts for 90 percent of Mr. Bean’s physical condition following the second accident.

Regarding the allegation that the noneconomic award shocks the conscience, the court looked at similar cases. But they stated that the final analysis depends on the peculiar facts and circumstances of the case. Here, the award of $825,000 for future noneconomic damages may be seen as the “high end” of reasonable damages, especially since Mr. Bean has largely recovered from his surgery. But it is not such a large verdict that it suggests prejudice on the part of the jury. The court concluded that Pacific Coast is not entitled to a reversal of the jury’s noneconomic damages award.

Concerning the jury instructions on the basic speed law, Pacific Coast argued that the trial court should not have provided the jury with these instructions because there was no evidence of Mr. Lazear’s speed, that speed was a cause of the accident, or that a change in speed would have avoided it. The court found that Pacific Coast did not preserve its contention that there was not enough evidence to support the instruction, since they did not properly object during trial.

The court also dismissed Pacific Coast’s allegations that Mr. Bean’s trial counsel committed misconduct during the trial. Here, the court stated that even if certain remarks were improper, they were not reversible error. Furthermore, the court stated that Pacific Coast failed to properly object at trial, thereby forfeiting any alleged error on appeal.

Regarding the prejudgment interest on costs, Pacific Coast contends that prejudgment interest should have been awarded only on the damages that the jury awarded. Turning to the Civil Code section 3291 and precedent, the Court held that prejudgment interest may not be awarded on costs. Costs are not considered part of the judgment but incidental to a judgment. The prejudgment interest award is to compensate the plaintiff for the loss of the award of damages, and not for the loss of use of money for costs. The court held that the trial court erred in awarding prejudgment interest on costs.

In conclusion, the court denied Pacific Coast’s motion for a new trial. The court reversed the prejudgment interest award as to costs and remanded to recalculate the prejudgment interest.

The Court’s analysis of damages, particularly noneconomic damages, demonstrates that the facts of personal injury lawsuits drive the case. At Sharifi Firm, we represent car accident victims, helping them to secure compensation for their injuries. Call us today for a free consultation at 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Rules in Car Accident Award Appeal, Southern California Lawyer Blog, July 8, 2015

California Court of Appeals Upholds Decision to Grant New Trial on Damages in Bus Accident Case, Southern California Lawyer Blog, June 26, 2015

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