By PAUL THARP, Staff Writer
The city of Charlotte, Transit Management of Charlotte and city bus driver Dennis W. Napier argued that Lynda Springs’ progressive multiple sclerosis would have eventually rendered her helpless.
So when Springs lost the use of her right arm and shoulder after the bus Napier was driving rear-ended Springs’ van at an intersection, the city, TMOC and Napier denied responsibility for her permanent injuries.
The impact broke the back of Springs’ wheelchair and thrust her body into the front of the bus, said her attorney, Thomas L. Odom of the Charlotte-based Odom Firm.
He said “take-your-plaintiff-as-you-find-her” cases like Springs’ are becoming more common as the population ages and injury cases involve plaintiffs whose underlying conditions were aggravated or exacerbated by an accident.
While Springs was mostly confined to a wheelchair before the accident, Odom said, she could stand up, move around, could cook and clean and was largely independent. Not so afterwards.
Her orthopedic physician, her neurologist, and her general physician, who had treated her for 20 years, all testified to Springs’ condition prior to wreck and noted the extent to which it deteriorated afterwards.
The defendants characterized their testimony as speculative.
After the jury returned a verdict in Springs’ favor that included an $800,000 award in compensatory damages and a $250,000 award in punitive damages against TMOC, the defendants appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by denying their motions for a directed verdict and for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s denial of the defendants’ motions in a Nov. 16 opinion in Springs v. City of Charlotte (Lawyers Weekly No. 10-07-1095, 21 pp.), holding that Springs presented sufficient evidence to permit a jury to attribute her avascular necrosis and right-shoulder pain to the accident.
While one doctor testified that there were various possible causes for avascular necrosis, he also said that, “in his opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the accident caused or aggravated Springs’ condition.”
A defense expert testified to the contrary, however, the court wrote, “Conflicts in the evidence and contradictions within a particular witness’ testimony are for the jury to resolve.”
Odom said he thought the court did a good job of pulling together various cases “and giving some guidance on what is speculative and what is not.”
Punitive damages remanded
The court remanded a portion of the case to Mecklenburg County “to allow the trial court to enter a written opinion setting out its reasons for upholding the punitive damages award” against TMOC.
The jury awarded $250,000 in punitive damages to Springs based on TMOC’s willful or wanton conduct.
“The driver had multiple preventable accidents while employed by TMOC and also while driving another city of Charlotte vehicle at the airport,” Odom said. “Some of those accidents involved injuries.”
Springs demonstrated that TMOC’s lack of training and oversight created a “foreseeable risk of injury to people on the highway,” he said. “The jury understood that.”
G.S. § 1D-15(a) provides that the trial court “shall state in a written opinion its reasons for upholding or disturbing the jury’s finding or award,” the court noted. Because it did not set out in a written opinion its reasons for upholding the jury’s punitive-damages award, the trial court failed to comply with G.S. § 1D-50.
Odom said the court relied on cases that were decided after the verdict in Springs. “We didn’t have our crystal ball out on that one,” he said.
Charlotte attorney Frank B. Aycock, who represented Napier, said the Court of Appeals’ opinion opens the door to going back to the trial court. He said he would meet soon with Napier and other defense counsel and could not comment further.
The attorney who represented TMOC did not return Lawyers Weekly’s calls for comment before deadline.
The Court of Appeals also remanded the issue of costs to the trial court, holding that Springs could not be reimbursed for amounts she expended on her expert witnesses’ preparation time.
The court noted that G.S. § 7A-305(d)(11) allows reimbursement for “an expert witness’ actual time testifying and not any other time.” The court reversed the award of over $58,000 in costs and remanded the issue to the trial court for reconsideration in light of the controlling statutes.
Case name: Springs v. City of Charlotte
Court: N.C. Court of Appeals.
Judges: Judge Martha Geer; Judges Ann Marie Calabria and Linda Stephens, concurring
Date: Nov. 16, 2010
Plaintiff-appellee’s attorneys: T. LaFontine Odom Sr., Thomas L. Odom Jr. and David W. Murray of The Odom Firm (Charlotte)
Defendant-appellants’ attorneys: Robert D. McDonnell and Frank B. Aycock III (Charlotte)
Issues: (1) Did the trial court err by denying the defendants’ motions for a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict where they alleged the testimony of the plaintiff’s experts was merely speculative as to the cause of her shoulder injury? (2) Did the trial court err by failing to set out in writing its reasons for upholding the jury’s punitive damages award against one of the defendants? (3) Did the trial court err by awarding as costs to the plaintiff fees she incurred in securing the testimony of expert witnesses?
Holdings: (1) No, the trial court did not err in denying the defendants’ motions where the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to present the issue of causation to the jury but where there was conflicting testimony from defense experts. (2) Yes, the trial court failed to comply with G.S. § 1D-50 because it did not set out in a written opinion its reasons for upholding the jury’s punitive damages award. (3) Yes, the trial court erred to the extent that it awarded as costs expert witness fees not specifically provided for by G.S. § 7A-305(d)(11) or G.S. § 7A-314.
Opinion digest: Click here.