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What Circumstances Would Lead to a New Trial on the Damage Award Only?

Tuesday, Sep. 12th 2017

By: Thomas Metier

In Bavlsik v. General Motors, Nos. 16-1491, 16-1632, (8th Cir. 2017),  the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit took on this question.

About five years ago Michael Bavlsik (“Bavlsik”) was driving his 2003 GMC Savana van when he collided with a boat being towed by another vehicle. Bavlsik was wearing his seatbelt, but that did not prevent him from hitting his head on the roof when the van rolled over. As a result, Bavlsik sustained a cervical-spinal cord injury and is now a quadriplegic. Bavlsik and his wife, Kathleen Skelly, sued General Motors (“GM”), the company that designed and manufactured the van, for: strict liability, asserting the seatbelt system lacked three specific safety features; negligent design, based on GM’s failure to implement these safety features or conduct adequate testing on the van; and failure to warn. After an eleven-day trial, the jury found GM negligent for failing to test the van and such negligence caused Bavlsik’s injuries. The jury rejected all other claims and theories. Bavlsik was set to recover $1 million (all for past damages), until the trial court granted GM’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law (“JML”) and set aside the verdict. Based on Bavlsik and his wife’s motions, the trial court also conditionally granted a new trial solely as to damages. Both decisions are before us now. Bavlsik and Skelly contend they presented sufficient evidence to support the verdict, therefore GM was not entitled to JML. GM disagrees, and argues that if a new trial is necessary, then the parties should also retry the liability issue.

The Court, when looking at whether to overturn a jury verdict, must view everything in a light most favorable to the prevailing party. The Court must assume all conflicts in the evidence were resolved in favor of the prevailing party, assume as proved all facts, give the prevailing party the benefit of all favorable inferences. That done, the Court must decide whether a reasonable person could differ as to the conclusions drawn from the evidence.

The lower court jury found GM liable for not adequately testing the van in question. It was part of a larger negligent design claim, so the plaintiffs had to prove the regular elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, and damages. Since the Court of Appeals was looking at all the evidence in favor of the prevailing party, and GM did not present new evidence to rebut, the Court affirmed the lower court jury’s finding. Then the question was whether the lack of testing was the cause of Bavlsik’s injuries. The lower court jury believed the expert testimony presented by Bavlsik’s side regarding testing. Thus, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Bavlsik, the Court of Appeals found legally sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding of causation.

Then the Court of Appeals looked at whether there should be a new trial on damages. (The lower court awarded only $1 million for past injuries—nothing for future losses nor any award to Bavlsik’s wife for loss of consortium.) The lower court could have come to a few different options in deciding whether a new trial was warranted. The Court of Appeals was satisfied that the issues of damages and liability are separate, then a new trial for Bavlsik’s future damages is appropriate.


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