From the Desk of Ashley Nagrodski:
The bedrock of our justice system is a trial by jury. When an appellate court reviews a jury verdict, its power to overturn the verdict is very limited. The appellate court must only serve as a check to ensure trials are conducted fairly and that the verdict is within the bounds of justice. In a recent case, the Washington Supreme Court reviewed an appellate court’s decision that the jury verdict, which awarded plaintiffs $81.5 million, was excessive. The principal issue in this case was when can an appellate court overturn a jury’s verdict it believes is excessive.
The Washington Supreme Court found that while the verdict was large, it was supported by substantial evidence and nothing in the record indicated it was influenced by passion or prejudice or so beyond the bounds of justice that no reasonable person could believe the jury award was correct. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying to set aside the verdict.
Coogan v. Borg-Warner Morse Tec Inc., 197 Wn.2d 790 (2021).
Doy Coogan spent decades working on cars and repairing industrial equipment that he used in his excavation business. Throughout that time Coogan had purchased many asbestos-containing parts distributed by Genuine Parts Company (GPC) and National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA). After years of this asbestos exposure, Coogan fell ill and eventually died of peritoneal mesothelioma.
Coogan’s wife and estate brought a wrongful death suit against GPC and NAPA. The jury found GPC and NAPA liable for Coogan’s death and entered an $81.5 million verdict. The award was portioned out as $30 million to Coogan’s wife for loss of consortium, $30 million to Coogan’s estate for pain and suffering, $10 million to each of Coogan’s daughters for damages, and $1.5 million for the loss of Coogan’s services. Defendants filed a motion to set aside the verdict and grant a new trial or, alternatively, to enter a remittitur of damages. They also moved for relief from judgment. All motions were denied, and defendants appealed. The Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed the jury’s verdict on liability but set aside the damages award, finding the pain and suffering verdict was “beyond all measure, unreasonable and outrageous.” Coogan’s wife and estate then petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review.
Appellate courts cannot substitute their own judgment for that of a trial court or jury. Jury verdicts are not set aside unless there is a showing that the verdict was the product of an unfair process of improper considerations, such that no reasonable person could believe the verdict is just. Washington law recognizes two reasons a jury’s damages verdict may not achieve substantial justice: (1) the jury’s damages verdict is not supported by evidence admitted at trial; or (2) the jury’s damages verdict was based on some improper consideration outside the evidence admitted at trial. CR 59(a)(7); CR 59(a)(5).
The Washington Supreme Court addressed, among other items, the appellate court’s holding that the jury’s $30 million award for Coogan’s pain and suffering was unreasonable and outrageous. The Supreme Court reviewed the appellate court’s decision to reverse the jury’s verdict because it believed the size of the verdict was outrageous on its face. The Supreme Court found the verdict was supported by substantial evidence and thus the defendants would need to prove that the verdict was a result of passion or prejudice, or so beyond the bounds of justice that no reasonable person could believe it correct. The size of the verdict alone is not proof that it was based on passion, prejudice, or any other improper consideration. The Supreme Court reviewed the record and found the verdict was supported by the evidence and there was no proof of any improper consideration by the jury in reaching their verdict. The Supreme Court held that the appellate court overstepped by substituting its own subjective judgment for that of the jury and the trial court based on nothing more than the size of the verdict.
The Big Picture:
This case reinforces the fact that an appellate court is limited when considering whether to overturn a jury’s verdict. Appellate courts cannot insert their own judgments as substitute for what was decided by the trial court and the jury absent very specific findings related to the verdict. The bar is quite high to prove that a jury verdict is excessive. To support overturning a jury’s verdict, an appellate court must find and rely on facts and evidence in the record that show the verdict was (1) not supported by evidence admitted at trial; or (2) was based on some improper consideration outside the evidence admitted at trial.