A trial court must grant a new trial absolute if the amount of the verdict is grossly inadequate or excessive so as to shock the conscience of the court and clearly indicates the figure reached was the result of passion, caprice, prejudice, partiality, corruption, or some other improper motive. The failure of the trial judge to grant a new trial absolute in this situation amounts to an abuse of discretion and on appeal, the appellate court will grant a new trial absolute.
Appellant passenger sued respondent driver, seeking damages for injuries suffered in a traffic accident. The driver admitted liability, and the trial proceeded as to damages only. A jury in the Greenville County Circuit Court (South Carolina) returned a verdict of $ 6,000 for the passenger. The trial court then granted the passenger's motion for additur and increased the damages by $ 15,000, but refused to grant a new trial absolute on damages and denied all other motions. The passenger appealed. The denial of the passenger's motion for a new trial absolute was reversed, and the case was remanded for a new trial on damages only.
Did the trial court err by not granting a new trial absolute as to damages?
The passenger presented evidence of over $ 500,000 in damages as a result of the accident. While the driver contested portions of the claim, unchallenged testimony established $ 30,026 in undisputed damages. The verdict of $ 6,000 was irreconcilably inconsistent with the unchallenged evidence presented at trial. The disparity between the award and the admitted damages went beyond a merely conservative award and suggested that the jurors were motivated by improper considerations. This suggestion was borne out by questions asked by the jury during deliberations. The record demonstrated that the jury ignored the trial court's instruction to disregard matters relating to third party payment of medical bills.