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Loyacono v. Travelers Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

June 19, 2014

KATHRYN LOYACONO
v.
THE TRAVELERS INSURANCE COMPANY

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: WARREN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/22/2010. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. RICHARD W. MCKENZIE. TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: ROBERT FARLEY WILKINS, J. MACK VARNER.

FOR APPELLANT: DAVID NEIL MCCARTY, ROBERT FARLEY WILKINS, BENJAMIN HOUSTON WILSON.

FOR APPELLEE: LOUIS G. BAINE, III, THOMAS Y. PAGE, R. E. PARKER, JR.

DICKINSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT. WALLER, C.J., LAMAR, CHANDLER, PIERCE AND COLEMAN, JJ., CONCUR. KING, J., CONCURS IN RESULT ONLY WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. RANDOLPH, P.J., CONCURS IN PART AND IN RESULT WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. KITCHENS, J., CONCURS IN PART AND IN RESULT WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY KING, J.

OPINION

Page 933

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

DICKINSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE

¶1. In this personal-injury case, the parties stipulated to the defendant's fault and proceeded to trial on injury and causation. The jury awarded the plaintiff zero dollars. The Mississippi Court of Appeals found that the jury's determination of damages conflicted with the overwhelming weight of the evidence. We disagree, but we affirm the Court of Appeals' decision to reverse and remand for a new trial on damages because the trial judge admitted irrelevant and highly prejudicial evidence of the plaintiff's husband's income.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶2. While driving on July 25, 2005, Kathryn Loyacono observed Watacha Shelby backing her car toward Loyacono on the same road. Loyacono brought her vehicle to a stop, but Shelby backed into the front of her vehicle. Following the accident, Loyacono proceeded by ambulance to the emergency room, complaining of neck and back pain. She was released the same day after being diagnosed with a muscle strain.

¶3. At the time of the accident, Shelby lacked liability insurance, but Loyacono possessed an uninsured-motorist policy through Travelers Insurance. Accordingly, Loyacono filed suit against Shelby and Travelers, seeking to recover the policy

Page 934

limit of $2.5 million. Prior to trial, the circuit judge entered an order acknowledging that the parties had agreed that Shelby had proximately caused the accident and that the Travelers policy covered any injuries Loyacono suffered. Thereafter, the parties proceeded to trial, submitting the issues of injury and the causation thereof to the jury.

¶4. Both sides presented expert testimony at trial. All three experts - one for the plaintiff and two for the defense - agreed that Loyacono had suffered a muscle strain as a result of the accident. The plaintiff's expert attributed years of back and neck pain, loss of earning capacity, and numerous medical treatments to the accident. The defense experts opined that the muscle strain would result only in minor pain for a short time following the accident and attributed the additional pain and medical treatment to a preexisting back condition.

¶5. After being instructed on the defendant's fault in the accident and charged with determining whether Loyacono had suffered any injury as a result of the accident, the jury awarded zero dollars to the plaintiff. Loyacono appealed, arguing that the trial court had erred by denying her motions for a directed verdict on causation, judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or, in the alternative, a new trial on damages, because the jury's verdict conflicted with the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Loyacono also argued that she had suffered prejudice because of an agreement between Shelby and Travelers, that the trial court had erred by allowing references to her husband's income, that defense counsel had committed discovery violations, that defense counsel had committed misconduct, that the trial court had erred by failing to inquire into potential juror misconduct, that the trial court had erred by refusing certain jury instructions, and that the trial court had erred by granting certain jury instructions.

¶6. We assigned the case to the Mississippi Court of Appeals. After reviewing the evidence presented at trial, the Court of Appeals concluded that " the evidence of Shelby's fault for the accident and Loyacono's injury as a result of the accident was uncontradicted. However, the evidence conflicted regarding the extent of Loyacono's injury as a result of this accident." [1] The court then noted that all experts agreed that Loyacono had suffered a muscle strain as a result of the accident and reversed and remanded for a new trial on damages.[2] We granted certiorari.

ANALYSIS

I. Whether the jury returned a verdict against the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

¶7. On certiorari, Travelers argues that the Court of Appeals erred by finding that the jury had returned a verdict against the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Travelers primarily relies on this Court's opinion in Herring v. Poirrier, which held that a jury may conclude, based on competent evidence, that a plaintiff suffered no injury as a result of an automobile accident, despite the fact that the trial judge directed a verdict on the defendant's fault in causing the accident.[3] While we find that this case presents a different evidentiary issue than that addressed in Herring, we agree that the Court of Appeals erred by finding that the jury had

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returned a verdict against the overwhelming weight ...


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