The South Dakota Supreme Court upheld a 2018 decision last week that awarded nearly $900,000 to a Hanson County couple for damages stemming from a 2014 car crash.
The court's opinion, written by Chief Justice David Gilbertson and published Sept. 4, concluded that the circuit court was not wrong when it allowed Gene Weber's medical providers to testify that his injuries were permanent and that the amount of money awarded by the jury was not indicative of prejudice that justified a new trial.
On Jan. 9, 2014, Weber was driving his pickup south on State Highway 25, heading back to work after stopping at his Emery home for lunch. Gerald Rains was transporting gravel in a semi-tractor with a side-dump trailer and was northbound on the two-lane highway when he had a coughing fit and drifted left of the center line, according to the opinion.
The drivers avoided a head-on collision, but the rear axle on Rains' vehicle hit the front driver's side of Weber's, causing his pickup to spin and land in a ditch. While Weber didn't report any injuries immediately following the crash, he began to feel pain in his shoulders, back and head soon after.
Doctors prescribed Weber a physical therapy regimen and suggested chiropractic care following an MRI, which reportedly did not show anything abnormal. Through the fall of 2014, Weber saw multiple doctors and used over-the-counter treatments for his pain.
Weber and his wife, Clarissa Weber, filed their case against Rains and his employer, K&L Landscape and Construction Inc., as Rains was driving for work when the crash took place.
Prior to the trial, the defendants admitted liability for the crash and agreed to pay for property damage and Weber's past medical expenses. Weber's past wage losses, future treatment expenses, pain and suffering and damages to Clarissa Weber were all to be determined at trial. Weber identified a physician's assistant and two doctors as expert witnesses who would testify that the crash caused Weber's injuries, that he would require future medical care and that his injuries were permanent.
The defendants motioned to consider the three people lay witnesses, rather than expert witnesses, and to leave out allegations that Weber would have future pain and suffering and medical expenses.
When the trial began on Feb. 20, 2018, the court ruled the three medical providers could testify to their overall prognosis of Weber, and the two doctors testified that Weber would never be pain-free. At the conclusion of the three-day trial, the jury awarded the Webers a total of $897,020, the majority of which was for Gene Weber's pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish and disability.
According to the opinion, the appellees argued that they were "ambushed" at trial because the medical providers testified that Weber's injuries were permanent. The Supreme Court determined the circuit court didn't err in refusing the defendants' motion, in part because they would have known at least four months before trial that Weber's witnesses would give that testimony, during which time they could have found their own medical experts or asked for more time, but chose not to do so.
"Indeed, the most conspicuous feature of this evidentiary record is that it is decidedly one-sided," Gilbertson wrote. "... The Appellants’ observations — offered as legal arguments — are unconnected to actual medical evidence supporting their argument that Weber’s soft-tissue injuries are not painful and permanent."
The appellees also made the argument that the jury was swayed by passion or prejudice and awarded the Webers an amount of money grossly disproportionate to the injuries and damages sustained.
Gilbertson wrote that a review of the evidence supported the jury's verdict and that the amount awarded didn't meet the legal reference point used to determine if a verdict is the result of a jury's passion or prejudice. That standard is met when the damages awarded are so excessive that they strike the average person "at first blush, as being, beyond all measure, unreasonable and outrageous."
The Supreme Court found that while the amount awarded for Weber's pain and suffering was substantially larger than the other amounts, it was substantiated by testimony that Weber, who was 44 when the trial took place, would experience chronic pain and flare-ups for the rest of his life, which was statistically estimated to be about 37.5 years.
Justices Janine Kern and Steven Jensen and retired Justice Glen Severson concurred with the opinion.