Jury instructions, verdict not erroneous in car crash negligence case, COA affirms

A motorist whose vehicle was rear-ended proved negligence on the other driver’s part but was also partially at fault, the Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed, also upholding the jury instructions.

Daniel Shirley had been previously injured in a 2013 car accident. After a short time, however, Shirley’s back pain disappeared and his life went “back to normal.”

But Shirley was then involved in a second car accident on March 26, 2016.

As the vehicle in front of Shirley slowed down to turn left, Shirley stopped his vehicle.

Meanwhile, Daniel Shaver, driving behind Shirley, was “daydreaming and looking to the left” and rear-ended Shirley at approximately 50 miles per hour.

Shirley experienced soreness in his lower back after the accident, but he did not seek medical treatment until approximately two months later, when he went to the emergency room and complained of right lumbar back pain.

Shirley’s primary care physician ordered an MRI, which revealed a herniated disc in his lower back.

Shirley sued Shaver for negligence, and a jury trial was held in April 2019. That trial, however, resulted in a mistrial, so a second jury trial was held in Porter Superior Court in November 2022.

At trial, Shirley denied slamming his brakes. Shirley also explained that he did not immediately seek medical treatment because he assumed that his pain would go away, as it had after the 2013 accident.

According to Shirley, he experiences daily pain that fluctuates from “minimal” to “a lot worse tha[n] minimal.” He admitted, however, that he described his pain as “nominal” during the first jury trial.

Shirley’s employment has not changed, and he continues to engage in many of the same activities that he did before the 2016 accident, including camping and attending sporting events. But he experiences discomfort during those activities and must make adjustments, including using a standing desk and occasionally wearing a back brace.

During closing arguments, Shirley’s counsel asked the jury to award $5 million based on his pain and suffering and potential, future medical expenses, which included the possibility of surgery.

Defense counsel argued that Shaver was not wholly responsible for Shirley’s injuries and urged the jury to award no more than Shirley’s current medical expenses, which totaled $15,623.61 at the time.

The jury found in Shirley’s favor. However, it also found Shirley 20% at fault and Shaver 80% at fault.

The jury determined that Shirley’s damages totaled $8,300, which it reduced to $6,640 based on his share of the fault.

Shirley appealed, arguing that the trial court had abused its discretion by refusing one of his proposed instructions and instructing the jury on a motorist-safety statute.

He also argued that the jury’s verdict was inadequate.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, with Judge Elizabeth Tavitas writing.

Tavitas noted that trial court’s jury instruction regarding what constituted “responsible cause” for an injury closely followed Indiana Model Civil Jury Instruction 301. The trial court also provided a comparative fault instruction, which instructed the jury to “apportion the fault” between the parties to “total 100 percent.” Additionally, the trial court instructed the jury that it could not hold Shaver liable to the extent that Shirley’s damages were caused solely by a preexisting condition or the 2013 accident.

Shirley argued that the trial court should have instructed the jury based on his proposed instruction, which contained the same language as the trial court’s instruction but also added additional language taken largely from Dunn v. Cadiente, 516 N.E.2d 52 (Ind. 1987).

The trial court refused the instruction, and the appellate court agreed with the refusal.

“We find Dunn distinguishable, and we conclude that the trial court properly refused the proposed instruction,” Tavitas wrote. “The proposed instruction does not correctly state the law because it contradicts Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act.”

The appellate court also found the trial court was within its discretion to give the jury instruction regarding Indiana Code § 9-21-8-24 and the required safe movement of a vehicle.

“The trial court was within its discretion to tailor the instruction to ‘conform to the facts of the case,’” Tavitas wrote, citing Burdick v. Romano, 148 N.E.3d 335 (Ind. Ct. App. 2020).

Finally, the appellate court did not agree with Shirley’s argument that the jury’s damages award was inadequate and that the case should be remanded for a new trial.

Shirley argued that the damages award was inadequate because it was less than Shirley’s medical bills. He further argued that the jury must have awarded a low verdict because “defense counsel invited the jury to consider the fact that Shirley was insured and that Shaver would have to pay the verdict personally.”

Tavitas wrote that recovering Shirley’s existing medical expenses was “hardly a focus” of Shirley’s theory of damages, and that he instead focused on recovering for pain and suffering and potential, future medical expenses.

“Similarly, neither Shirley’s insurance nor Shaver’s financial responsibility for the judgment were anything close to focal points at trial. Rather, the defense argued that Shirley’s injuries were due to a preexisting condition and earlier car accident, for which Shaver was not responsible, and that Shirley’s pain was not severe,” Tavitas wrote.

Judges Rudolph Pyle and Peter Foley concurred.

The case is Daniel Shirley v. Daniel R. Shaver, 23A-CT-204.

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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