Supreme Court of Tennessee Affirms Non-Economic Damages for Child’s Car Accident Injuries — Meals v. Ford Motor Co.

Recently, the Tennessee Supreme Court reinstated a $43.8 million award in damages to a six-year old boy who was paralyzed in a car accident. A court of appeals had previously remitted the trial court’s award by 70%.

Child Paralyzed from Seatbelt
In Meals v. Ford Motor Company, the plaintiff, a 6 year-old boy, had suffered severe abdominal injuries and paralysis after a car accident. The young boy was riding in the back seat of a Ford Mercury and had been buckled, but the boy’s father placed the shoulder strap behind the boy’s back because it ran across the boy’s face. While driving on the interstate, another driver, under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, ran head on into the Ford Mercury. Because the shoulder strap was behind the child, the child’s body jackknifed over the lap belt, violently pushing the belt up into the child’s abdomen causing severe abdominal injuries, a collapsed lung, loss of a portion of his small intestines, a brain injury, a cracked skull, and a dislocated spine leaving him permanently disabled from the waist down.

Trial Court Awards $43.8 Million
The child brought a suit against several parties including a products liability claim against Ford motor company, because of the faulty design of the safety belt. At trial, the jury ruled that the drunk driver was 70% at fault for the accident, the father 15% at fault for improperly belting the child, and Ford Motor company 15% at fault for the faulty design of the safety belt. The jury awarded damages in the amount of $43,800,000 of which Ford’s share was $6,570,000.

Appeals Court Reduces Damages
Ford appealed the decision, and the appeals court determined that the damages were excessive and remanded the case back to the trial judge suggesting a remittitur from $43.8 million to $12.9 million, making Ford’s share $1,935,000. The appeals court found $12.9 to be twice the provable economic damages, allowing for the other half of the damages to be non-economic. Under Tennessee law a plaintiff is entitled to recover economic damages, which the plaintiff bears the burden of proving the amount. The plaintiff is also entitled to recover for non-economic damages for their pain and suffering, permanent impairment or disfigurement, and loss of enjoyment of life.

Supreme Court Hears Case
The plaintiff then appealed that amount to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The Supreme Court of Tennessee held that the court of appeals had the authority to suggest a remittitur; however, they also found the 12.9 million to be in error. The Supreme Court, discussing the role of the appeals court, noted that the trial judge acts as the thirteenth juror when deciding damages, and any analysis should be deferential to the award by trial judge. The trial judge’s decision should not be disturbed if any material evidence supports damages and if the amount of damages are found to be reasonable.

Material Evidence Found
The court found material evidence supporting the non-economic damages. The child had extensive medical treatment with permanent wires and rods infused into his body, which included a spinal fusion. The child will be subject to extensive physical therapy and medical treatment throughout his whole life. Prior to the accident, he participated in sports, enjoyed school, and played with many friends. He now has significant disabilities and paralysis, with no control over his bladder or bowels. He requires psychiatric treatment to deal with the limitations of his condition. He is likely impotent and will never be able to have children. The court found there was evidence supporting a substantial award of non-economic damages.

Trial Award Reasonable
In looking at the reasonableness of the award, the court further noted that a trial judge may consider amounts awarded in other similar cases to determine the lower and upper limits of a reasonable reward. The court examined several cases with like circumstances and injuries and found that the $43.8 million award was on the high side for spinal injuries, but not excessive or unreasonably high. The court held that the verdict was supported by material evidence and was within the range of reasonableness.

Car Accident Victims
The decision is an important ruling for victims of car accidents. Car accident victims will get a fair chance to be fully compensated for injuries caused by negligent and reckless drivers. Unfortunately, not everyone on the road drives safely, and dangerous accidents can happen. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fatal car accidents in Blount County have been on the rise in recent years.

What to Do If You Are in an Accident
If you or a loved one have been the victim of a car accident an experienced car accident attorney will be able to gather evidence related to the incident and can review all the elements of the case. You are encouraged to contact a local personal injury attorney with experience handling car accident and personal injury cases.

If you have been involved in a vehicle accident, contact Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C. at (865) 524-5657.

Additional Resources:
Meals v. Ford Motor Company, Aug. 30, 2013, The Supreme Court of Tennessee

Traffic Fatalities for Blount County, 2013, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Data

More Blog Entries:
Knoxville Ejection Crashes Often End in Serious Injury, Death, Aug. 14, 2013, Knoxville Injury Lawyer Blog

Defective Product Risks for Children this Holiday Season, Nov. 30, 2012, Knoxville Injury Lawyer Blog

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