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Vanoven v. Western Rivers Boat Mgmt.

June 12, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Susan Webber Wright United States District Judge

Memorandum Opinion and Order

Plaintiff Danny Vanoven brought this action against defendant Western Rivers Boat Management, Inc. for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness. The matter was tried to a jury on April 23-27, 2007, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff and awarded him compensatory damages in the amount of $900,000.00. The matter is now before the Court on defendant's motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, and motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). For the reasons that follow, the Court finds the motions should be denied.

Motion for New Trial

"A motion for a new trial may be 'bottomed on the claim that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving; and may raise questions of law arising out of alleged substantial errors in admission or rejection of evidence or instructions to the jury.'" Children's Broadcasting Corp. v. Walt Disney Co., 245 F.3d 1008, 1017 (8th Cir. 2001) (quoting Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940). In deciding defendant's motion for a new trial, the Court must find "that prejudice or error has crept into the record, that the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, or that substantial justice has not been done." Greenwood v. Dittmer, 596 F. Supp. 235, 239 (W.D.Ark. 1984), aff'd, 776 F.2d 785 (8th Cir. 1985).

Defendant argues it suffered prejudice because plaintiff did not provide it with a computation of his damages prior to trial and because the Court allowed a witness to testify in contravention of the Court's order granting defendant's motion in limine. Defendant asserts these errors deprived it of a fair trial.

1. Computation of Damages

According to Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(a)(1)(C), a party must, without awaiting a discovery request, provide to the other parties: . . . .

(C) a computation of any category of damages claimed by the disclosing party, making available for inspection and copying as under Rule 34 the documents or other evidentiary material, not privileged or protected from disclosure, on which such computation is based, including materials bearing on the nature and extent of injuries suffered; . . .

Defendant states plaintiff never supplied it with any disclosures under Rule 26(a)(1), much less a computation of damages. Defendant says it sought by way of interrogatories to ascertain the computation of damages but plaintiff did not provide such computation prior to trial. On April 24, the second day of trial, defendant's attorney asked plaintiff on cross-examination to tell the jury the amount of damages he would ask them to award. Plaintiff responded that he did not know what amount he was asking the jury to award for future lost wages or pain and suffering. He said he was leaving those numbers up to his lawyers. Tr. vol. 2 at 258.

On April 25, after plaintiff rested, defendant moved for dismissal pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). The Court asked defendant to postpone making his motions but would consider them having been made at the close of plaintiff's case in chief. Tr. vol. 3 at 450-3. Later that day, after defendant's last witness of the day concluded his testimony, the Court heard defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law. Id. at 560. Defendant moved the Court to dismiss the case because plaintiff did not testify as to any amount of damages. Defendant argued plaintiff's failure to supplement his interrogatory answers of record effectively meant he was seeking zero dollars in damages. Id at 571. The Court denied the motion at that time, but reserved defendant's right to renew its motion after the close of all the evidence. The Court further directed plaintiff's counsel to produce a computation of damages which plaintiff would ask the jury to award, stating defendant is "entitled to know what to anticipate." Id. at 571-2.

On the morning of April 26, the fourth day of trial, plaintiff's counsel produced a handwritten set of numbers to defendant's counsel. The figures, which defendant complained did not conform to the federal rules,*fn1 showed that plaintiff would seek a maximum of $342,563.00 for future lost earnings*fn2 and between $318,840.00 and $585,560.00 for past and future pain and suffering. See Ex. A, Def's. Mot. New Trial. After the lunch break, however, and, according to defendant, after unsuccessful settlement negotiations, plaintiff's counsel provided defendant's counsel with a new set of damage figures, which totaled $1,659,773.00, over $500,000.00 more than the first set of figures. Plaintiff's counsel explained that the first set of numbers contained a miscalculation of days, but defendant claims plaintiff's counsel used a different multiplier rate. Tr. vol. 4 at 694-6;700-01. Defendant asked the Court for permission to use both sets of figures as sworn answers to interrogatories. The Court ruled, however, that defendant could use only the second set. Id. at 700. Later that day, at the close of all the evidence, defendant renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law. The Court denied the motion. Id. at 715.

During closing argument, plaintiff's counsel asked the jury to award plaintiff damages for loss of future earning capacity using either the defendant's or the plaintiff's expert witness's figures. Tr. vol. 5 at 796-7. Dr. Talbert, the witness for plaintiff, testified his highest calculation totaled $395,523.00. Tr. vol. 4 at 431. According to defendant, plaintiff's counsel then asked the jury to award $1,264,250.00 as damages for past and future pain and suffering. Tr. vol. 5, 797-800. In total, plaintiff asked for damages of over $1.6 million.

Defendant argues it was deprived of the opportunity to full cross-examine plaintiff because even he did not know what numbers would be submitted to the jury. Further, defendant asserts it was denied an opportunity to take discovery to dispute the validity of the computations and could not adequately prepare for trial or develop a strategy which might have resolved the case prior to trial.

Defendant filed a motion in limine asking the Court to preclude plaintiff from offering or presenting to the jury a "unit of time" or per diem argument. After the testimony at trial had concluded, the Court ruled in defendant's favor and ordered plaintiff's counsel not to make any per diem argument to the jury. Tr. vol. 4 at 751-2. Defendant was not unaware of the range of amounts of damages plaintiff was seeking. The parties engaged in at least two settlement negotiation sessions. Plaintiff refers to a mediation session on March 1, 2007, during which he says he provided defendant with a method of computing plaintiff's damages, yielding a $2.4 million award. Tr. vol. 3 at 573. Defendant states in its Pretrial Disclosure dated March 29, 2007, ...

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