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Irwin v. Eclectic Dining Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 5, 2016

MEGAN C. IRWIN AND THOMAS L. IRWIN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS FATHER AND NEXT FRIEND OF MINOR CHILDREN M.I.1, M.I.2., AND T.I., Plaintiffs,
v.
ECLECTIC DINING, INC., d/b/a ATLANTICA’S OLDE SALE HOUSE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

ALLISON D. BURROUGHS, U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

I. INTRODUCTION

On August 5, 2012, Plaintiff Megan C. Irwin (“Ms. Irwin”) was seated at the outdoor patio of Atlantica’s Olde Salt House, a restaurant in Cohasset, Massachusetts owned by Defendant Eclectic Dining, Inc. (“Eclectic Dining”), when a gust of wind caused the umbrella at her table to blow out of its stand and strike her in the face. In April 2013, Ms. Irwin and her husband Thomas L. Irwin, individually and as father and next friend of their three minor children, (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”) initiated this action against Eclectic Dining, alleging that Eclectic Dining’s negligence caused injury to Ms. Irwin and a loss of consortium to her husband and their three children.

On October 13, 2015, following a 10-day trial, a jury found Eclectic Dining to have been negligent in connection with the umbrella incident and awarded Ms. Irwin $30, 000 in damages.

The jury determined that Eclectic Dining's negligence was not a proximate cause of any loss of consortium to Megan Irwin's three children, and therefore did not award the children any damages.[1]

Presently before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for a New Trial on Damages, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). [ECF No. 6]. Plaintiffs contend that the jury's verdict on damages was against the great weight of the evidence and, if allowed to stand, would represent a clear miscarriage of justice. Plaintiffs filed their motion on November 3, 2015. Defendant responded on November 17, 2015 [ECF No. 108] and Plaintiffs filed a reply on November 23, 2015 [ECF No. 111]. For the reasons stated herein, Plaintiffs' Motion for a New Trial on Damages is denied.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, following a jury trial, a court may grant a motion for a new trial "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A).[2] The trial court may order a new trial if "the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon evidence that is false, or resulted from some trial error and amounts to a clear miscarriage of justice." Payton v. Abbott Labs, 780 F.2d 147, 152 (1st Cir. 1985). "[A] district court wields broad legal authority when considering a motion for a new trial, " but it cannot "displace a jury's verdict merely because [it] disagrees with it or because a contrary verdict may have been equally . . . supportable." Jennings v. Jones, 587 F.3d 430, 436 (1st Cir. 2009) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Absent an error of law, a judge should only set aside a jury verdict if “it is quite clear that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result.” Milone v. Moceri Family, Inc., 847 F.2d 35, 37-38 (1st Cir. 1988) (quotations omitted).

Inadequate damages can constitute a sufficient reason for a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. Phav v. Trueblood, Inc., 915 F.2d 764, 766 (1st Cir. 1990). However, where the sufficiency of a jury’s award of damages is contested in a personal injury case, the movant “bears a particularly heavy burden.” Milone, 847 F.2d at 37; see also Gil de Rebollo v. Miami Heat Ass’ns, Inc., 137 F.3d 56, 63 (1st Cir. 1998) (“[I]t is comparatively more difficult to justify overturning a jury’s verdict where the only evidence that something has gone awry is an allegedly insufficient damages award.”). A motion for a new trial should not be granted if, “after scanning the evidence in the light most congenial to the nonmovant-the verdict does not exceed or fall below ‘any rational appraisal or estimate of the damages that could be based on the evidence before the jury.’” Milone, 847 F.2d at 37-38 (quoting Segal v. Gilbert Color Sys., 746 F.2d 78, 81 (1st Cir. 1984)).

III. DISCUSSION

Over the course of the 10-day trial, Plaintiffs called 13 witnesses, nine of whom offered testimony related to Plaintiffs’ alleged damages. The witnesses included Ms. Irwin, her mother, her husband, her former work supervisor, and several medical experts. Plaintiffs also introduced into evidence the medical records of Ms. Irwin’s numerous treating physicians. Eclectic Dining called one witness, Dr. Barry Gordon, a neurologist who served as the Defendant’s medical expert.

Broadly speaking, the Plaintiffs’ damages theory was that the umbrella incident caused mild traumatic brain injury, which left Ms. Irwin unable to return to her previous employment or take care of her children, family and home in the way that she had before, and limited her ability to live and enjoy the life she lived prior to the injury. Plaintiffs alleged that these injuries were permanent and that, as a result, Ms. Irwin’s children were suffering a permanent loss of parental consortium, Ms. Irwin had significant lost wages, and she had incurred and would continue to incur expenses for medical and other related treatments. The Defendant contended that, at worst, Ms. Irwin had suffered a concussion, the symptoms of which could be reasonably expected to last no more than three-to-four months. Defendant further argued that many of the symptoms and limitations Ms. Irwin attributed to the incident pre-dated it or were attributable to the stress and unhappiness in her life caused by a troubled marriage, a sick child, and the demands of being a working mother with three young children and some preexisting medical issues.

At the conclusion of the trial, the Court instructed the jury that if they found by a preponderance of the evidence that Eclectic Dining was negligent, and that Eclectic Dining’s negligence caused injury to Ms. Irwin, they should award her damages in such amount as would provide full and fair compensation to her for any injury caused by the negligence. The Court further instructed the jury that in determining the amount to award Ms. Irwin, they should consider three types of damages: medical care expenses, pain and suffering, and lost earning capacity.

Plaintiffs contend that the jury’s $30, 000 award was inadequate and against the great weight of the evidence. According to Plaintiffs, the “overwhelming weight of the evidence” presented at trial supports a finding that the umbrella incident caused Ms. Irwin to incur mild traumatic brain injury, and that the $30, 000 award does not adequately compensate her for lost wages and the significant, life-altering symptoms she continues to suffer as a result. [ECF No. 111, at 3]. Defendants counter that the damages award was consistent with their theory of the case; namely, that Ms. Irwin did not sustain permanent appreciable structural brain damage as a result of the ...


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