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Articles Tagged with Failure to Mitigate

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.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently found a trial court erred when it instructed a jury on the plaintiff’s alleged failure to mitigate damages in an Indiana truck accident case. In Humphrey v. Tuck, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against a truck driver and a trucking company arising from a trucking collision in which the trailer of the tractor-trailer being driven by the truck driver struck the plaintiff’s vehicle while the plaintiff was driving on the highway. As a result of the impact, the plaintiff hit his head on something inside his car and his windshield cracked. The following day the plaintiff experienced problems with his left eye and removed a sliver of glass from his eye.

The plaintiff thereafter sought and received medical treatment from numerous providers, including an ophthalmologist, optometrist, neurosurgeon, and endocrinologist. During his treatment, an MRI revealed a pre-existing tumor on the plaintiff’s pituitary gland, which was secreting prolactin and causing high prolactin levels. The plaintiff’s neurosurgeon opined that the plaintiff had pituitary apoplexy, which he described as an abrupt sudden event that occurs spontaneously in many cases of large pituitary tumors but which can be associated with trauma. After the plaintiff’s neurosurgeon removed the tumor, the plaintiff’s endocrinologist prescribed a medication, bromocriptine, to help lower his prolactin level. While the plaintiff did not always take the medication as prescribed because he could not afford it and it made him ill, he did take it consistently for a period of at least six months, and as a result, his prolactin levels decreased significantly. His endocrinologist eventually advised him to stop taking the medication altogether. The plaintiff’s optometrist also prescribed eyeglasses, but the plaintiff never got them.

The trucking company argued at trial that the plaintiff failed to mitigate his damages because he did not take the bromocriptine as prescribed and did not get the eyeglasses as prescribed. Failure to mitigate damages is an affirmative defense that can reduce the amount of a plaintiff’s damages when the plaintiff’s conduct aggravates or increases the plaintiff’s injuries. In order to prove a failure to mitigate damages, a defendant must prove (1) the plaintiff failed to exercise reasonable care to mitigate his post-injury damages, and (2) the plaintiff’s failure to exercise reasonable care caused the plaintiff to suffer an identifiable item of harm not attributable to the defendant’s negligent conduct. A defendant’s burden of proof includes proof of causation, namely, that the plaintiff’s unreasonable post-injury conduct increased the plaintiff’s harm, and if so, by how much.

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