“Inconsistent” jury award requires a new trial.

On November 26, 2015, a judge of the BC Supreme Court ordered a retrial in a personal injury lawsuit after a jury awarded special damages but denied the plaintiff damages for his non-pecuniary loss.

In Harder v. Poettcker , 2015 BCSC 2180, the plaintiff requested a jury trial after suffering injuries in a motor vehicle accident.  The jury found the plaintiff 85% at fault for the crash and awarded a total $5,100 in damages (all based on out of pocket expenses) and then awarded nothing for non pecuniary damages.  After applying the split of fault this left an award of $765.

The trial judge found that a new trial was necessary as it was inconsistent to make an award for special damages yet nothing for non-pecuniary loss for the injuries that led to the need for those special damages.  In reaching this conclusion Mr. Justice Sigurdson provided the following reasons:

17]         Notwithstanding the importance of attempting to enforce a jury’s verdict and the fact that even apart from the 85% contributory negligence award against the plaintiff, the award was at best either very modest or nil, I am driven to conclude that to award nothing for non-pecuniary damages but award $1,200 for special damages is an inconsistent verdict.

[18]         Although a possible rationalization of the award is that the jury intended to award the plaintiff say $400 for non-pecuniary damages but rounded it down in accordance with my instructions to zero, I reject that. I find the jury intended to award nothing for non-pecuniary damages. Even if the jury intended to award only a nominal amount for non-pecuniary damages, I think that would still create an inconsistent verdict: see Le v. Luz, 2003 BCCA 640.

[19]         I also reject the submission that the jury verdict could properly be interpreted to mean that they intended to award something for non-pecuniary damages under a pecuniary heading.

[20]         Although the defendant argues forcefully that there was coherence and consistency in the jury verdict, I respectfully disagree. I find that the jury award, although small from the plaintiff’s perspective, is inconsistent and judgment cannot be entered on the defendant’s motion.

[21]         The question then arises whether I can and should sever the issues of liability and damages and enter judgment on liability for the plaintiff including the contributory negligence finding and direct a retrial only on damages, or whether I should order a retrial of the entire case.

[22]         I have concluded that I am bound by the considered decision of my brother Weatherill J. in Kalsi. Although severance may be ordered in many cases before trial, this is not an appropriate case to have issues that are largely dependent on credibility decided by different triers of fact.

[23]         Given that there must be a retrial, how should that take place? A further trial by a new jury would be months, or a year or more, ahead. The mode of trial by jury was at the plaintiff’s request but now he wants the retrial by judge alone. The plaintiff now consents to and requests a retrial being conducted before me.

[24]         I think for a number of reasons that the retrial should be before me. I heard all of the evidence and the submissions of counsel. Given the fact that it would be a lengthy time until the matter is retried before a jury, and given the age of the plaintiff and the question of cost to the parties, I think it is appropriate that I conduct a retrial based on the evidence I have heard and I so order. Accordingly I exercise my discretion under the governing rule that the retrial take place before me without a jury.

[25]         I have heard the submissions of counsel and a recording of those submissions is available to me to refresh my memory. Counsel may make further submissions in writing on liability and damages provided they do not repeat what I have already heard in the submissions to the jury. I ask that the plaintiff file his argument within three weeks and the defendant his argument within three weeks following, with the plaintiff having a right of reply within a week. I will then hand down a written decision.