Grunenthal v. Long Island Railroad Company/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions
Harlan
Stewart

United States Supreme Court

393 U.S. 156

Grunenthal  v.  Long Island Railroad Company

 Argued: Oct. 24, 1968. --- Decided: Nov 18, 1968


Petitioner was working for respondent as foreman of a track gang when a 300-pound railroad tie being lifted by the gang fell and severely crushed his right foot. He sued respondent for damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq., and a jury in the District Court for the Southern District of New York awarded him $305,000. [1] The trial judge denied the railroad's motion to set the award aside as excessive. The railroad appealed the denial to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and that court, one judge dissenting, ordered the District Court to grant the railroad a new trial unless the petitioner would agree to remit $105,000 of the award. 388 F.2d 480 (1968). We granted certiorari, 391 U.S. 902, 88 S.Ct. 1651, 20 L.Ed.2d 416 (1968). [2] We reverse.

Petitioner argues that the Court of Appeals exceeded its appellate powers in reviewing the denial of the railroad's motion, either because such review is constitutionally precluded by the provision of the Seventh Amendment that 'no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law,' [3] or because such review is prohibited by the Federal Employers' Liability Act itself. We have no occasion in this case to consider that argument, for assuming, without deciding, that the Court of Appeals was empowered to review the denial and invoked the correct standard of review, the action of the trial judge, as we view the evidence, should not have been disturbed. See Neese v. Southern R. Co., 350 U.S. 77, 76 S.Ct. 131, 100 L.Ed. 60 (1955).

The trial judge filed an unreported opinion. [*] He considered that in deciding the railroad's motion he 'must indulge * * * in a fairly accurate estimate of factors to which the jury gave attention, and favorable response, in order to arrive at the verdict announced.' He concluded that the motion should be denied because, applying that standard, the relevant evidence weighed heavily in favor of the jury's assessment. His instructions to the jury had limited the items of damages to wages lost before trial, compensation for loss of future earnings, and past and continuing pain and suffering. His opinion detailed the items of evidence which in his view, were sufficient to support the jury in finding that (1) wages lost before trial amounted to approximately $27,000, (2) loss of future wages based on petitioner's present salary of $6,000 per annum plus likely increases over a life expectancy of 27.5 years would amount to $150,000 present value, and (3) 'an amount approaching $150,000 (would be appropriate) for plaintiff's pain and suffering-past and future.' The judge conceded that the aggregate award seemed generous, but he concluded nevertheless that it was 'not generous to a fault or outside the bounds of legal appropriateness.' He emphasized that 'the trial record here has many unusual features, the most outstanding one being the noncontroversial nature of the defense as to damages. The jury, impressed by the uncontroverted proof adduced by plaintiff, may well have adopted in toto its full significance and drawn such normal and natural inferences therefrom as the law endorses.'

The Court of Appeals regarded its inquiry as limited to determining whether the trial judge abused his discretion in denying the railroad's motion. Its guide for that determination, the court stated, was the standard of review announced in its earlier decision in Dagnello v. Long Island R. Co., 289 F.2d 797, 806 (1961): '(W)e appellate judges (are) not to decide whether we would have set aside the verdict if we were presiding at the trial, but whether the amount is so high that it would be a denial of justice to permit it to stand. We must give the benefit of every doubt to the judgment of the trial judge; but surely there must be an upper limit, and whether that has been surpassed is not a question of fact with respect to which reasonable men may differ, but a question of law.' [4]

We read Dagnello, however, as requiring the Court of Appeals in applying this standard to make a detailed appraisal of the evidence bearing on damages. Indeed this re-examination led to the conclusion in Dagnello that it was not a denial of justice to permit the jury's award to stand. If the Court of Appeals made a similar appraisal of the evidence in this case, the details are not disclosed in the majority opinion. Beyond attaching unexplained significance to petitioner's failure in his complaint 'to ask for damages in such a large sum as $305,000,' the relevant discussion is limited to the bald statement that 'giving Grunenthal the benefit of every doubt, and weighing the evidence precisely in the same manner as we did in Dagnello * * * we cannot in any rational manner consistent with the evidence arrive at a sum in excess of $200,000.' 388 F.2d, at 484. We have therefore made our own independent appraisal of the evidence. We conclude that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in finding 'nothing untoward, inordinate, unreasonable to outrageous-nothing indicative of a runaway jury or one that lost its head.'

The liability and damage issues were tried separately before the same jury. The evidence at the trial on damages consisted of stipulated hospital and employment records, a stipulation that petitioner's life expectancy was 27.5 years, and the oral testimony of the petitioner his medical expert, and an official of his railroad union. The railroad offered no witnesses.

Petitioner was 41 years of age at the time of his injury and had been in the railroad's employ for over 20 years. The railroad concedes in its brief that he was earning approximately $6,000 annually and that the jury could properly find that he was entitled to $27,000 for wages already lost over the four and one-half year period between injury and judgment. The railroad further concedes that an award of $100,000 for loss of future wages would not be improper, this on the premise that invested in federal securities that sum would realize $6,000 annually. The trial judge on the other hand appraised the evidence on future earnings as sufficient to support an award of $150,000 for loss of future wages in light of the 'convincing testimony not refuted * * * demonstrating the steady wage increases in recent time for work equivalent to that rendered by plaintiff, and the strong likelihood that similar increases would continue.'

We cannot say that the trial judge's view that the jury might properly have awarded $150,000 for loss of future earnings is without support in the evidence. The judge had instructed the jury without objection from the railroad that it was free to find on the evidence that the injury so disabled the petitioner 'that it in effect closed out his working career.' Although petitioner's medical witness testified that the condition of his foot would not prevent petitioner from engaging in 'sedentary work,' petitioner's unchallenged evidence of his unsuccessful efforts to obtain and keep jobs of that kind might reasonably have led the jury to decide that petitioner's chances of obtaining or holding any employment were most doubtful. Petitioner testified that his applications for work had often been turned down: '(W)hen they found out I had a bad foot they wouldn't take a chance.' On one occasion when he obtained employment as a salesman during the Christmas rush, 'I worked there for about four or five days but I couldn't stand it.' Moreover, the railroad refused to employ him for any kind of work when he failed a medical examination given him by a railroad physician; after being told, 'You failed the medical and we can't take you back,' petitioner said he began receiving a 'disability pension from the railroad.'

Since the jury's award for lost future earnings may properly have been as high as $150,000, its award for pain and suffering might have been as low as $128,000 rather than the $150,000 deemed permissible by the trial judge. In any event we cannot say that the trial judge's opinion that the jury might have awarded the higher $150,000 amount is without support in the record. Petitioner's injury caused his hospitalization at five different times over a period of less than two years. His foot was so badly crushed that serious infection developed. The wounds did not heal properly and skin grafts were made from his right thigh about a year after his injury. Several months later gangrene set in and his doctors were concerned that the 'foot was about to die.' A sympathectomy was performed, consisting of an incision of the abdomen to reach the spinal column and the sympathetic ganglia along the spine 'to remove (the) controls which maintain the closing down of the blood vessels.' This operation was successful but six months later petitioner was forced to submit to yet another operation to remove a piece of bone over the ball of the great toe. Petitioner's medical witness testified that there is still a hazard of more surgery because 'this is just a mess of bones'-'the metatarsal has been completely crushed'-'the joint is completely lost'-'the overall black appearance of the bone' 'indicates decalcification or demineralization'-'the nourishment to the foot is so bad that the skin shows the unhealthy condition of the foot.' Petitioner testified that 'I always have a pain, it is like a dull toothache, to this day,' and that 'I just take it for granted now. It doesn't bother me now.' The jury might well have concluded that petitioner suffered and would continue to suffer great pain, although he had learned to live with it. As Judge Hays noted, 388 F.2d, at 485, the trial judge referred to 'the total absence of exaggeration' in petitioner's testimony describing 'the excruciating physical pain and mental anguish' he had endured since the accident. 'On the record here,' said the trial judge, '(the jury) had good and sufficient reason to regard and assess (the plaintiff's pain and suffering-past and future) as excruciating, deep-seated, unrelenting and debilitating-the inducing cause of his constant misery.'

We therefore conclude that the action of the trial judge should not have been disturbed by the Court of Appeals.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the case is remanded to that court with direction to enter a judgment affirming the judgment of the District Court.

It is so ordered.

Reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice HARLAN, dissenting.

Notes[edit]

^1  Petitioner's complaint sought damages of $250,000. This was amended with leave of the trial judge to $305,000 after the jury returned its verdict in that amount.

^2  The Court of Appeals rejected the railroad's grounds of appeal addressed to liability and to the dismissal of a third-party claim of the railroad against the contracting company which furnished a boom truck used by the track gang. None of those questions was brought here.

^3  All 11 courts of appeals have held that nothing in the Seventh Amendment precludes appellate review of the trial judge's denial of a motion to set aside an award as excessive. Boyle v. Bond, 88 U.S.App.D.C. 178, 187 F.2d 362 (1951); Compania Trasatlantica Espanola, S.A. v. Melendez Torres, 358 F.2d 209 (C.A.1st Cir. 1966); Dagnello v. Long Island R. Co., 289 F.2d 797 (C.A.2d Cir. 1961); Russell v. Monongahela R. Co., 262 F.2d 349, 352 (C.A.3d Cir. 1958); Virginian R. Co. v. Armentrout, 166 F.2d 400, 4 A.L.R.2d 1064 (C.A.4th Cir. 1948); Glazer v. Glazer, 374 F.2d 390 (C.a.5th Cir. 1967); Gault v. Poor Sisters of St. Frances, 375 F.2d 539, 547-548 (C.A.6th Cir. 1967); Bucher v. Krause, 200 F.2d 576, 586-587 (C.A.7th Cir. 1952); Bankers Life & Cas. Co. v. Kirtley, 307 F.2d 418 (C.A.8th Cir. 1962); Covery Gas & Oil Co. v. Checketts, 187 F.2d 561 (C.A.9th Cir. 1951); Barnes v. Smith, 305 F.2d 226, 228 (C.A.10th Cir. 1962).

^4  the standard has been variously phrased: 'Common phrases are such as: 'grossly excessive,' 'inordinate,' 'shocking to the judicial conscience,' 'outrageously excessive,' 'so large as to shock the conscience of the court,' 'monstrous,' and many others.' Dagnello v. Long Island R. Co., supra, 289 F.2d, at 802.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).