California Appeals Court Upholds $5,000 Non-Economic Damages Award Following Slip & Fall

A plaintiff brought a lawsuit against Valencia-Penales Care Services, Inc. and two individuals in connection with injuries she incurred from a fall. The matter proceeded to a jury trial. The plaintiff appealed from a judgment and order denying her motion for a new trial, contending that the non-economic damages she was awarded by the jury were inadequate. The California Court of Appeal for the First District disagreed and affirmed the judgment.

old woman

In January 2015, the plaintiff was living alone in an apartment at Redwood Retirement, an adult living facility. She was 91 years old, suffered from macular degeneration, and at times used a cane or walker. She fell while getting back into her car after visiting the store with her caretaker. One of the issues at trial was her mental and physical condition before and after her fall.

The jury found no negligence on the part of the individual defendants, but it rendered a verdict for the plaintiff on her negligence claim against Valencia-Penales. The jury apportioned 45% of the responsibility for her harm to Valencia-Penales. It awarded the plaintiff her requested past economic damages totaling $44,506.65, future economic damages in the amount of $126,000 for caregiving services, and $5,000 for non-economic damages.

On appeal, she maintained that the jury’s award of $5,000 for non-economic damages was inadequate because (1) she suffered significant injuries when she fell, and (2) she lost her independence and quality of life.

The plaintiff contended $5,000 was not enough for her non-economic damages, based on a California Court of Appeals case from the Second District:  Dodson v. J. Pacific. In Dodson, a plaintiff underwent an operation in which surgeons removed a herniated disc and inserted a metallic plate, and the jury found that the defendant’s negligence was a cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Under those circumstances, the court held, “the failure to award any damages for pain and suffering results in a damage award that is inadequate as a matter of law,” and a new trial motion should have been granted. The court explained:  “A plaintiff who is subjected to a serious surgical procedure must necessarily have endured at least some pain and suffering in connection with the surgery. While the extent of the plaintiff’s pain and suffering is for the jury to decide, common experience tells us it cannot be zero.”

The plaintiff argued that as in Dodson, she sustained a significant physical injury that required surgery, the jury found that Valencia-Penales caused the injury necessitating her surgery and medical expenses, and there was evidence she experienced great pain. Her argument, the appeals court held, was unpersuasive. Reversal was required in Dodson because the jury awarded the plaintiff nothing for non-economic damages. Here, the jury awarded the plaintiff $5,000. While she may believe that $5,000 is not enough, the appeals court held she failed to establish that it was inadequate under Dodson as a matter of law.

The plaintiff next argued that the $5,000 award was insufficient because she sustained a permanent physical impairment, a loss of enjoyment of life, inconvenience, grief, and emotional distress. She cited to evidence that the hip fracture caused a permanent physical impairment, since thereafter she was able to walk only about 15 feet and spends 90 percent of her day in a wheelchair. She claimed she leads a lower quality of life, noting that she is no longer ambulatory, requires 24-hour care, and was unable to live in her Redwood Retirement apartment with her cat. She maintained that the jury’s award of $126,000 for future caregiving equated to 18 months of 24-hour care (from the time of the verdict) for a total of two and one-half years of 24-hour care (from the time of her fall), so the jury must have concluded that she would have remained living independently at Redwood Retirement for two and one-half years had it not been for the fall.

However, the appeals court explained, as the trial court noted, there was a substantial conflict in the evidence as to the plaintiff’s mental condition and quality of life before the fall, as well as the extent to which her condition thereafter was really due to the fall. While the plaintiff urged that this evidence was irrelevant because the jury’s award acknowledged that the fall accelerated her need for 24-hour care, the appeals court explained that she missed the point. The jury could have found that the plaintiff should have recovered the extra cost of 24-hour care necessitated by her physical incapacity due to the fall, but it still could have found that she failed to prove the fall resulted in a substantial decrease in the quality of her life, given the extent and cause of her dementia before and after the fall, as well as her Alzheimer’s disease. It was the plaintiff who bore the burden of proof with respect to damages, and the jurors (and the trial court) were in the best position to observe the witnesses and evaluate their testimony.

For these reasons, the appeals court affirmed the judgment and order denying the motion for a new trial.

The premises liability lawyers at Neumann Law Group represent victims throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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