A man was severely injured when he fell down a staircase in a restaurant. The staircase had no upper landing and was separated from the public space only by a door that opened inwardly. There were no eyewitnesses to the accident and the injured man testified that he had no memory of the incident. In result of the accident, the man suffered extensive brain and spinal injuries. The man sued the owner of the restaurant to recover damages for sustained injuries.
After a trial, the jury found that defendant was negligent and that its negligence was a substantial factor in causing the accident. The jury further determined that plaintiff was negligent because he was intoxicated and that his conduct was a proximate cause of the accident. Liability was then apportioned 75% as to plaintiff and 25% as to defendant. Plaintiff was awarded over $88,000 for past medical expenses. No damages were awarded to plaintiff for either past or future economic or non-economic loss.
Plaintiff filed a motion to set aside the verdict, seeking a new trial on all issues, arguing that the verdict was the product of an impermissible jury compromise. Defendant opposed the motion and cross-moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing that no rational jury could find that defendant’s actions caused plaintiff's accident. The court granted plaintiff's motion to set aside the jury verdict as a compromise and ordered a new trial, but denied defendant’s motions for a directed verdict and cross motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Defendant appealed.
On appeal, the Second Department held that the trial court properly denied the defendant's motion for a directed verdict and cross motion to set aside the verdict. The Second Department held that a motion for a directed verdict should only be granted when there is no rational process by which a finder of fact could find in favor of the non-moving party. The Court pointed out that a jury verdict should not be set aside unless it could not have been reached by any fair interpretation of the evidence. The Court further held that the evidence adduced at trial, both direct and circumstantial, was sufficient to support a finding that defendant’s negligence proximately caused plaintiff's injuries.
There was evidence presented at trial that the stairway was dangerous because it had no landing and the door opened inward. Employees of the restaurant testified that it was the lounge's policy to keep the cellar door locked at all times to prevent patrons from entering the cellar. Employees had keys for the door and were instructed to unlock and re-lock it whenever they went down to the cellar. The evidence further supported a finding that the door was unlocked at the time of the incident. In addition, there was evidence in the record that no appropriate warning sign was placed on or adjacent to the cellar door. To the Second Department, the bartender's testimony that he heard a loud series of thumps apparently coinciding with plaintiff's fall down the staircase, and that plaintiff was found lying at the bottom of the stairwell immediately thereafter, was proper evidence relied upon by the jury in reaching its conclusion.
The Second Department also held that the trial court correctly set aside that verdict and ordered a new trial because the jury awarded inexplicably low damages. The Second Department reasoned that the failure of the jury to award damages beyond reimbursement of medical expenses, despite the severity and permanency of plaintiff's injuries, supported the trial court's conclusion that the jury rendered an impermissible compromise verdict. The Second Department explained that in cases involving seriously injured plaintiffs, where issues of liability are sharply contested, and the damages awarded are inexplicably low, the verdict is most likely the product of a jury compromise. The Court further reasoned that while the jury imputed some level of fault to defendant, plaintiff was inexplicably awarded no damages for either past or future pain and suffering or economic loss, even though the severity and permanency of plaintiff's injuries was well-documented. Accordingly, the Second Department upheld the lower court’s decision and remanded the case for a retrial.