Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Standard For Reduction Of Jury Verdict

October 20, 2017

In a case where a tractor-trailer, rear-end collision in Memphis resulted in a multi-million dollar jury verdict, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld most of the trial court’s legal rulings, but it clarified when and how both trial and appeals courts can reduce jury verdicts. 

Plaintiff Donriel Borne was a professional truck driver.  In July 2009, Mr. Borne was driving his employer’s tractor-trailer when it was rear-ended by another tractor-trailer owned by Celadon Trucking Services, Inc.  The Celadon truck was in turn rear-ended by the tractor-trailer behind it, which was owned by Chickasaw Container Services, Inc.  Mr. Borne claimed he was injured in the collision and later filed a lawsuit in Shelby County against both Celadon and Chickasaw, claiming the other drivers negligently caused the accident.

Before the trial, Mr. Borne entered into an agreement with Chickasaw.  They agreed that Chickasaw was not at fault in the accident and that they would cooperate with each other in the lawsuit; in return, Chickasaw agreed to pay half of any award the jury made against it.

After a seven-day trial, the jury returned a verdict for Mr. Borne, awarding him damages totaling $3.7 million for his loss of earning capacity, his pain and suffering, the permanency of his injury, and his loss of enjoyment of life.  With little explanation, the trial court reduced the amount of the jury’s award—called a “remittitur”—lowering the total award to $2.1 million.  Mr. Borne and Celadon both appealed.

In a divided opinion, the court of appeals held that the pretrial agreement between Mr. Borne and Chickasaw did not violate Tennessee public policy.  It also held that the trial court’s jury instructions were complete and proper.  The court of appeals affirmed part of the trial court’s remittitur of the jury’s award and reversed other parts of it. In addition, it also reduced the damages for “loss of enjoyment of life” even further, from $400,000 down to $50,000.  The Supreme Court granted both parties’ applications for permission to appeal.

The Supreme Court concluded that Celadon had waived any public policy argument concerning the pretrial agreement between Mr. Borne and Chickasaw. It also held that the evidence at trial would have supported a particular jury instruction Celadon asked for on superseding cause, but that the trial court’s jury instructions were, as a whole, sufficient. 

The Supreme Court then addressed the lower courts’ remittitur (reduction) of the jury’s award of damages. It  first held that an appellate court may order its own remittitur of a jury’s damage award, even if the trial court has already reduced the award, but the appellate court may do so only if the award as reduced by the trial court “exceeds the uppermost boundary of the range of reasonableness,” i.e., is not supported by material evidence. The court of appeals did not follow this standard, and the Supreme Court reversed its remittitur of the jury’s award for loss of enjoyment of life.   

When an appellate court reviews a trial court’s remittitur of a jury’s award, the Supreme Court held, the appellate court must follow a specific Tennessee law on remittitur.  Under this law, the appellate court must determine whether the trial court’s reduction of the jury’s award “is supported by a preponderance of the evidence,” that is, whether the weight of the evidence supports the trial court’s reduction of the jury’s award.  In this case, the trial court did not explain why it ordered a remittitur of the jury’s award, and, therefore, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for an explanation of its reasons for the remittitur.

Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Lee agreed with the majority’s decision regarding the pretrial agreement. She disagreed with the majority on whether the trial court should have instructed the jury on superseding cause, concluding that the evidence did not warrant such an instruction. Justice Lee also disagreed with the majority’s decision on remittitur and its remand to the trial court. According to Justice Lee, the standard adopted by the majority unnecessarily restricts the authority of the appellate court to correct a jury verdict based on its review of the evidence. Further she concluded that the majority should have reviewed the jury award and not remanded the case for further proceedings.

To read the decision in Donriel Borne v. Celadon Trucking Services, Inc., authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the separate decision of Justice Sharon G. Lee,go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.