Miss. SC: Woman only partially responsible for damages

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 27, 2012, 11:25am


JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a woman who accidentally rear-ended another woman's vehicle should only have to pay $9,000 for physical therapy bills.

The Court, in its April 19 ruling, reversed the judgment of the state Court of Appeals and reinstated the judgment of the Jackson County Circuit Court.

In March 2002, defendant Dung Thi Hoang Nguyen stopped behind plaintiff Karen Thompson at a red light. Nguyen went to reach for her purse when her foot slipped off the brake, causing her car to bump into Thompson's.

Neither car was damaged. Thompson -- who did not, at the time of the accident, claim to be injured -- testified that it felt as if her car had stalled.

Nguyen and Thompson exchanged information and left the scene without calling the police.

After arriving at her parents' home, Thompson's father told her to get a police report for her insurance provider, so Thompson called Nguyen, who agreed to meet her at the police station that night.

A few days later, Thompson visited her physician, Dr. James Martin, complaining of neck pain.

Martin, who was already treating Thompson for migraine headaches, ordered an x-ray and ultrasound. He prescribed pain medication, and referred Thompson to a physical therapist.

A scan of Thompson's spine later revealed a pre-existing degenerative-disc disease associated with disc bulges.

Despite ongoing therapy, Thompson continued to complain of headaches, insomnia, depression and neck pain until, in 2004, physical therapist Ruth Bosarge referred Thompson to neurosurgeon Dr. Lee Kesterson.

In 2005, Thompson underwent surgery to treat her abnormal discs.

Soon after, she sued Nguyen, seeking $234,316.49 in compensation.

Nguyen, in response, admitted liability but argued that the accident had not caused Thompson that much damage.

A jury awarded Thompson $9,131 -- the exact amount of her physical therapy bills.

Thompson then filed a motion for additur or a new trial on damages alone, which the circuit court denied.

She appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a trial on damages, holding that the lower court erred by denying Thompson's motion for a directed verdict; denying her motion for additur or new trial; and refusing her proposed peremptory jury instructions on causation, jury instructions on damages and request for a special verdict.

The state's high court disagreed.

"Nguyen admitted liability, and the jury's only task was to determine what, if any, damage was proximately caused by Nguyen's negligence. This does not mean, as Thompson argues, that the jury was required to find for Thompson," Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson wrote for the Court.

Dickinson said the burden was on Thompson to prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" that Nguyen's negligence proximately caused her damages.

"A plaintiff has the burden of proof, and must offer evidence that persuades the jury. The jury is not required to believe or trust the evidence submitted by the plaintiff, and is free to accept all, part or none of the plaintiff's evidence. A defendant is not required to prove or rebut anything," the justice explained.

As for Thompson's motion for additur, the Court said the circuit court judge did not abuse his discretion by dismissing the motion.

"The Court of Appeals was of the opinion that the jury was confused, and that its confusion evidenced the bias, prejudice or passion required to award an additur or a new trial on damages," Dickinson wrote.

The jury asked the trial judge five questions. Those questions, the justice said, suggest the jurors "diligently" and "seriously" pursued their duty -- not the other way around.

"We cannot know the reason the jury asked to speak with the judge, but the fact that they did does not show confusion," Dickinson wrote.

As for the jury instructions, the Court said the grant and denial of such instructions do not warrant reversal.

"Here, the jury was instructed that Nguyen had admitted liability. Because Nguyen had admitted liability, Thompson argues, the jury could not reach a verdict in Nguyen's favor. But this is incorrect," Dickinson wrote.

"Confessing liability is not synonymous with confessing a verdict.

"Although Nguyen admitted liability, she contested causation. The jury was free to find that the accident did not proximately cause any of Thompson's injuries. The jury was instructed that liability was not at issue, but proximate cause was."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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