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Stafford v. Government Employees Insurance Co.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

February 6, 2018




         BEFORE THE COURT are the Motion [123] for New Trial filed by Defendant Lamorak Insurance Company f/k/a One Beacon America Insurance Company (“Lamorak”) and the Motion [131] for New Trial filed by Defendant Government Employees Insurance Company (“GEICO”). In this case, Plaintiff Ronald Stafford (“Stafford”) sued Lamorak and GEICO for injuries and damages arising out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred on September 13, 2012. A jury awarded Stafford $1, 222, 314.93 in damages. Verdict [120].

         In the Motions [123][131] now before the Court, Defendants contend that the jury's findings are against the overwhelming weight of the evidence and that this Court erred in excluding evidence that Stafford had filed another lawsuit regarding a second car accident that occurred on July 9, 2014. Based upon its review of the record and relevant legal authority, the Court finds that both Motions [123][131] should be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Pre-Trial Proceedings

         On September 10, 2015, Stafford filed a Complaint [1-2] in the Circuit Court of Pearl River County, Mississippi, alleging that he was injured as a result of a motor vehicle collision that took place on September 13, 2012. See Compl. [1-2]. The case was removed to this Court on November 11, 2015, on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. Not. of Removal [1]. According to the Complaint, on September 13, 2012, Stafford was driving a vehicle owned by his employer, Pearl River County, Mississippi, when he was rear-ended by another vehicle. Compl. [1-2] at 3. At the time of this collision, Stafford was the owner of an underinsured motorist policy issued by GEICO. Id. at 4. The County vehicle Stafford was driving was insured by Lamorak, whose policy also included underinsured motorist coverage. Id. Stafford sought to recover underinsured motorist coverage benefits from both GEICO and Lamorak. Id. at 5-6. Of relevance here, Stafford later filed a second lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Pearl River County, Mississippi, in relation to a different vehicle accident that occurred on July 9, 2014, in which he allegedly sustained an aggravation of the lumbar and cervical spine conditions he experienced as a result of the September 13, 2012 collision which forms the basis of this lawsuit. Order [113] at 8.

         Before trial, Stafford filed a First Motion [96] in Limine, in which he sought to preclude any evidence, testimony, or argument referring to any other lawsuit, including the lawsuit related to Stafford's July 9, 2014 motor vehicle accident. Mot. [96] at 1-2. Stafford contended that such evidence should be excluded under either Federal Rule of Evidence 402, because it was irrelevant to the instant litigation, or Rule 403 because, even if relevant, its probative value was substantially outweighed by the risks of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, and misleading the jury. Pl.'s Mem. [99] at 5. Stafford conceded that “mentioning the second accident may be unavoidable in this case[.]” Id.

         In an Order entered on July 26, 2017, this Court found “that evidence that the other lawsuit was filed by Plaintiff in relation to the vehicle accident that occurred in July 2014 is not relevant to the instant litigation and could mislead or confuse the jury and unduly prejudice Plaintiff.” Order [113] at 9 (citing Vance v. Union Planters Corp., 209 F.3d 438, 445 (5th Cir. 2000)). The Court prohibited the parties “from introducing evidence that Plaintiff has filed a second lawsuit, ” but noted that “statements made by Plaintiff in the second lawsuit may be relevant for impeachment purposes, to the extent that any statements he made in that litigation are inconsistent with statements he might make during this trial.” Id.

         B. The Jury Trial

         The case proceeded to a jury trial beginning on August 8, 2017, and concluding on August 10, 2017. Judgment [122] at 1. At trial, Stafford offered the video deposition testimony of his medical expert, Dr. Michael Patterson. Dr. Patterson testified that Stafford suffered from preexisting “degenerative conditions in his neck.” Patterson Dep. [140-1]. Dr. Patterson opined that “the first accident seemed to be the most important one” because Stafford “was able to perform a fairly vigorous . . . job prior to the accident and that changed dramatically afterwards and never improved[.]” Id. After the first accident, Dr. Patterson restricted the weight Stafford could lift at work. See Patterson Dep. [140-2]. Dr. Patterson conducted an evaluation of Stafford on August 7, 2014. Patterson Dep. [139-8]. During this evaluation, Stafford informed Dr. Patterson that he was involved in a second accident on July 9, 2014, and complained of back pain, neck pain, and headaches. Id. Dr. Patterson stated that it seemed the second accident “further worsened” Stafford's neck and low back pain and “worsened things in general, ” id., however, in his view the July 9, 2014 accident did not have any impact on the lifting restrictions he had already placed upon Stafford after the September 13, 2012 accident. Patterson Dep. [139-4].

         Adrain Lumpkin, the County Administrator for Pearl River County, testified that Stafford was on full, unrestricted work duty prior to the first accident, but had to be accommodated for light duty work after the accident. Pl.'s Mem. [139] at 6; Def.'s Mem. [124] at 8. Stafford's economic expert, Dr. Boudreaux, testified that Stafford's actual economic damages were between $488, 259.55 and $539, 468.21, depending upon his retirement age. Boudreaux Trial Tr. [139-3]. Defendants did not introduce evidence to rebut Boudreaux's testimony, nor did they call their own economic expert.

         Stafford testified to the jury regarding his second accident, stating that on July 9, 2014, he was rear-ended by a freight truck, Stafford Trial Tr. [139-5], and that as a result of the second accident he suffered increased pain in his neck and back, id. According to Stafford, he returned to Dr. Patterson for medical care after the second accident. Id. Finally, Stafford's vocational rehabilitation expert, Ty Pennington, opined that Stafford suffered an almost complete loss of the possibility of returning to his usual employment. See Stewart Trial Tr. [139-6].

         Lamorak called its own vocational rehabilitation expert, David Stewart, who testified that he disagreed with Mr. Pennington's opinion. Id. At the close of the evidence, the Court's instructions to the jury included Jury Instruction 13, which stated:

Plaintiff is not entitled to damages from Defendants for any injuries which existed prior to the accident on September 13, 2012. If you find that the September 13, 2012, accident caused any aggravation of any preexisting injury of Plaintiff Ronald Stafford's, Defendants bear the responsibility for the portion of the injury or the aggravation of the injury that the September 13, 2012, accident caused. Where you the members of the jury cannot apportion the damages between Plaintiff's preexisting condition and the September 13, 2012, accident, then in that case Defendants may be liable for the whole amount of damages on the basis that one who injures another suffering from a preexisting condition is liable for the entire damage when ...

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