A recent personal injury verdict in Brooklyn is one of the largest ever awarded to a single plaintiff in New York state. The verdict highlights the utility of two procedural tools available to defendants facing excessive verdicts: a motion to set aside the verdict pursuant to CPLR 4404, or an appeal pursuant to CPLR 5501(c), for an order directing a new trial unless the plaintiff agrees to accept a lower sum (or, “remittitur”).
On April 9, 2019, a Kings County jury in Liciaga v. New York City Trans. Auth. awarded $110,000,000 to a man rendered paraplegic after being struck by a falling railroad tie. The 23-year-old plaintiff was riding his bicycle in the vicinity of the defendant’s elevated construction project. He claimed the defendant’s employees allowed him to enter an area beneath the construction project, and that barriers directed him into an area of even further danger, rather than away from it. While there, plaintiff was struck by a falling railroad tie that fractured his spine and rendered him permanently paralyzed.
The size of the verdict is notable in that it was awarded to a single plaintiff and consisted of compensatory damages only (in other words, no “punitive” damages intended to punish the defendant for particularly egregious behavior).
There are 10 known comparable or larger compensatory awards to single personal injury plaintiffs in New York state, ranging from $72,650,000 to $212,580,000. All of these cases involved alleged negligent medical treatment. The majority involved infants who suffered brain damage at birth. All but one involved plaintiffs who suffered brain damage. Though the Liciaga Plaintiff was a young man and his injuries catastrophic, his recovery may nevertheless be excessive, and difficult to have predicted — considering that plaintiff did not allege medical malpractice, was not an infant, and did not suffer brain damage.
There are two key procedural tools available to defendants facing runaway verdicts: a motion to set aside the verdict pursuant to CPLR 4404, or an appeal pursuant to CPLR 5501(c), for an order directing a new trial unless the plaintiff agrees to accept a lower sum. In either instance, the movant or appellant presents evidence, in the form of verdicts for similar injuries that were sustained on appeal, to argue that the jury’s award “materially deviates from reasonable compensation.” See CPLR 5501(c). In March 2017, for example, a jury in nearby New York County awarded $39,500,000 to the 22-year-old plaintiff rendered paraplegic after a fall (Klupchak v, First East Village Assocs., No. 0110617/2009); note that this amount was reduced to $29,000,000 pursuant to a pre-verdict high-low agreement). In December 2010, another New York County jury awarded $50,591,035 to the 29-year-old Plaintiff also rendered paraplegic after a fall (Savillo v. Greenpoint Landing Associates L.L.P., Nos. 114418/2007, 590014/2008).
Based on these cases, involving plaintiffs of similar ages with similar injuries, it could be argued that the verdict here was excessive and should be reduced, at a minimum, by 50 percent; or a new trial ordered. See, e.g., Laurie Marie M. v. Jeffrey T.M., 159 A.D.2d 52 (2d Dep’t 1990) (reducing compensatory award by 50% or ordering new trial based on analysis of awards for similar injuries). Likewise, the discrepancy between this and prior cases awarding similarly large sums might be further indication the award here is excessive (the plaintiff is not an infant and he did not suffer brain damage).
Of course, courts will also consider factors specific to the case irrespective of comparison to similar verdicts, since they are guided by the principle: “Modification of damages, which is a speculative endeavor, cannot be based upon case precedent alone, because comparison of injuries in different cases is virtually impossible.” See Po Yee So v. Wing Tat Realty, Inc., 259 A.D.2d 373 (1st Dep’t 1999).
This alert does not purport to be a substitute for advice of counsel on specific matters.
Harris Beach has offices throughout New York State, including Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Melville, New York City, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Uniondale and White Plains, as well as New Haven, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey.