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Smith v. Starr Indemnity & Liability Co.

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

July 1, 2019

ROSE MARY SMITH, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
STARR INDEMNITY & LIABILITY COMPANY DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KEITH STARRETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         For the reasons provided below, the Court denies Plaintiffs' Motion for a New Trial [81].

         A. Background

         This is an insurance dispute. Plaintiff Rose Mary Smith was in an automobile accident caused by an uninsured motorist. At the time of the accident, Smith was insured under an insurance policy issued by Defendant, Starr Indemnity & Liability Company, which provided up to $1, 000, 000.00 in uninsured motorist coverage. Defendant did not dispute coverage. Rather, it disputed the amount of Smith's injuries caused by the accident.

         The Court held a three-day jury trial. Plaintiffs sought payment for Rose Mary Smith's physical injuries and medical bills, Rodney Smith's loss of consortium, and economic losses in Plaintiffs' business. During closing argument, Plaintiffs' counsel asked the jury to award Plaintiffs $5, 000, 000.00 in damages. The jury awarded Plaintiffs $37, 000.00 - $12, 000.00 for Rose Mary Smith's past medical bills, $25, 000.00 for Rose Mary Smith's noneconomic damages, and nothing for her future medical bills, her lost wages, and her husband's loss of consortium. See Jury Verdict, Smith v. Starr Ind. & Liab. Co., No. 2:17-CV-164-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. May 6, 2019), ECF No. 80. Unsatisfied with the verdict, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for New Trial [81], which the Court now addresses.

         B. Discussion

         Rule 59 provides that the “court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues - and to any party - as follows: (A) after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court . . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1). Plaintiffs made two arguments in favor of their motion.

         First, Plaintiffs argue that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence because the jury “obviously” based their verdict on the testimony of Defendant's expert, Dr. David Gandy, which Plaintiffs contend was flawed in several respects. “A trial court should not grant a new trial on evidentiary grounds unless the verdict is against the great weight of the evidence.” Pryor v. Trane Co., 138 F.3d 1024, 1026 (5th Cir. 1998). The Court “must affirm the verdict unless the evidence - viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict - points so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the court believes that reasonable men could not arrive at a contrary conclusion.” Id. (punctuation and citations omitted).

         Plaintiffs' argument rests upon an erroneous assumption. Plaintiffs assume that the jury must have credited Dr. Gandy's testimony, arguing that there is no other explanation for the verdict. To the contrary, the jury could have simply disbelieved Plaintiffs and their witnesses. Plaintiffs had the burden of proving the amount of their damages caused by the accident. Architex Ass'n, Inc. v. Scottsdale Ins. Co., 27 So.3d 1148, 1157 (Miss. 2010) (“The burden of proving coverage rests with the insured.”). The jury has sole discretion to credit or discredit any evidence as it deems appropriate. Montano v. Orange County, Tex., 842 F.3d 865, 874 (5th Cir. 2016). Therefore, the jury could have rejected Plaintiffs' $5, 000, 000.00 demand because they did not find Plaintiffs' evidence credible.

         Regardless, if the jury credited Dr. Gandy's testimony, that was their prerogative. Id. Plaintiffs filed no motions challenging Gandy's qualifications or the relevancy or reliability of his testimony. See Fed. R. Evid. 702. Plaintiffs cross-examined Gandy. They argued in closing that the jury should disregard Gandy's testimony. Plaintiffs have not identified any erroneous or prejudicial ruling by the Court related to Gandy's testimony. In fact, Plaintiffs made no contemporaneous objection to Gandy's testimony. Moreover, they had a chance to present a rebuttal witness to his testimony but chose not to do so.

         Reasonable persons could believe Dr. Gandy's testimony and conclude, based on all the evidence presented at trial, that Plaintiffs were only entitled to $37, 000.00. Likewise, reasonable persons could disbelieve much of Plaintiffs' evidence and conclude that they were only entitled to $37, 000.00. All the nits that Plaintiffs picked out of Gandy's testimony were fodder for cross-examination and closing argument, rather than grounds for exclusion or granting a new trial. Bottom line: Plaintiffs have not provided the Court with any basis to conclude that the jury's verdict was against the great weight of the evidence.

         Plaintiffs' also argue that the Court should grant them a new trial because Juror No. 1's husband is employed by First South Farm Credit Company and was “actively involved in negotiations with [Plaintiff Rose Mary Smith] in determining whether First South Farm Credit would purchase an office owned by [Smith] in Jones County, Mississippi, ” and “the negotiations resulted in his company purchasing the property.” Exhibit B to Motion at 1, Smith v. Starr Ind. & Liab. Co., No. 2:17-CV-164-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. May 24, 2019), ECF No. 81-2. Smith claims that she “was not aware of the family relationship at the time that the jury was questioned and, therefore, was not aware of the prior dealings” with Juror No. 1's husband. Id.

         During voir dire, Juror No. 1 identified herself by name and stated where she lived and what she did for a living. She also identified her husband by name and stated that he worked for First South Farm Credit. Later, the Court asked the panel if anyone knew the Plaintiffs, was related to them, or had any sort of connection to them or their business. Juror No. 1 did not respond affirmatively to the Court's question. Later, in chambers, Plaintiffs did not challenge Juror No. 1 for cause or use a peremptory challenge to strike her from the panel.

         To obtain a new trial, Plaintiffs “must first demonstrate that a juror failed to answer honestly a material question on voir dire, and then further show that a correct response would have provided a valid basis for a challenge for cause. The motives for concealing information may vary, but only those reasons that affect a juror's impartiality can truly be said to affect the fairness of a trial.” McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548, 556, 104 S.Ct. 845, 78 L.Ed.2d 663 (1984). Therefore, “[e]ven when a juror's non-disclosure is dishonest as opposed to mistaken, his behavior is not a basis for reversal unless the dishonesty appears to be rooted in bias or prejudice.” United States v. Bishop, 264 F.3d 535, 555 (5th Cir. 2001). “[A] finding of juror bias is based upon ...


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