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Indiana Supreme Court Upholds Jury Verdict in Truck Crash Case Finding Some Evidence to Support Trial Court’s Failure to Mitigate Instruction

We previously wrote about an Indiana Court of Appeals case in which the court reversed a trial court’s judgment on a jury verdict of $40,000 for a plaintiff in a truck accident case and remanded the case for a new trial based upon the trial court’s giving of a failure to mitigate jury instruction. In Humphrey v. Tuck, the plaintiff, Patrick Humphrey, suffered swelling of a pre-existing tumor after being sideswiped by a truck and hitting his head, which caused problems with his vision and symptoms of a hormonal imbalance. Humphrey did not follow his doctor’s orders and advice with regards to medication management and an eyeglass prescription. However, the parties disagreed as to whether the defendants had shown such failure increased his harm, and if so, by how much. In a recent opinion, the Indiana Supreme Court found there was sufficient evidence to support a failure to mitigate instruction, thereby vacating the Court of Appeals opinion and affirming the judgment.

When reviewing the appropriateness of an instruction, reviewing courts consider whether (1) the instruction correctly states the law, (2) the instruction is supported by evidence in the record, and (3) the instruction’s substance is covered by another instruction. The first consideration is a legal question reviewed without giving any deference to the trial court, whereas the second and third considerations are reviewed for an abuse of discretion. To prove a failure to mitigate, a defendant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) the plaintiff did not exercise reasonable care in mitigating post-injury damages, and (2) the failure to exercise reasonable care caused the plaintiff to suffer harm not attributable to the defendant’s negligence. When a plaintiff fails to follow medical advice aggravating his injuries, a defendant must show such failure caused discrete, identifiable harm arising from that failure and not attributable to the defendant. Courts consider whether the defendant has produced enough evidence of causation to warrant an instruction. Expert opinion is often, but not always, required, with courts considering whether the medical issue is within the common experience, observation, or knowledge of a layman.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and remanded for a new trial finding the evidence insufficient to support a failure to mitigate jury instruction. The Indiana Supreme Court, however, disagreed, noting under Indiana law to warrant the giving of an instruction a defending party need only show some evidence—a “scintilla”—of each element of the underlying claim or defense. Here, the trucking crash plaintiff Humphrey conceded the existence of evidence showing he had failed to exercise reasonable care to mitigate his post-injury damages; the only question, therefore, was whether there was some evidence that his conduct caused him to suffer harm beyond that attributable to the defendants. As to the second element of failure to mitigate, the Indiana Supreme Court noted that the issue is not only whether Humphrey’s failure to follow his doctor’s orders increased his harm, but also whether it prolonged the suffering he attributed to the defendants’ negligence in any discrete, measurable way, without the defendants having to put forth a specific numerical value as to the plaintiff’s increased or prolonged harm in showing “quantifiable” harm. Defendants argued that Humphrey’s failure to mitigate his damages either aggravated his injuries or prolonged them.

In reviewing the record, the Indiana Supreme Court noted there was evidence that Humphrey did not initially take prescribed medicine for his hormonal imbalance, the medication helped when he eventually took it, he then stopped taking it because of side effects but did not immediately follow up as directed to find an alternative medicine for his hormonal imbalance, and that despite vision problems, he did not fill an eyeglass prescription. Based on this evidence, the Indiana Supreme Court concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that Humphrey’s continuing symptoms constituted identifiable harm attributable to his failure and not the defendants’ negligence. The Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ opinion and affirmed the trial court’s judgment finding no abuse of discretion in the trial court giving a failure to mitigate instruction.

You can read the full opinion here.

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