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Cora L. Wandel v. Kevin Dockett Sr. Trucking

July 18, 2011

CORA L. WANDEL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
KEVIN DOCKETT SR. TRUCKING, INC., ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Beryl A. Howell

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This controversy arises out of a pedestrian-truck accident that occurred at the intersection of 20th and M Street N.W. in Washington, D.C. around 11:00 AM on July 28, 2006. Defendant Marvin Smith was operating a dump truck in the course of his employment with Defendant Kevin Dockett Sr. Trucking, Inc. and struck the plaintiff, who at that time was a male known as Curtis Wandel and who is now a female known as Cora Wandel. The parties to this lawsuit stipulated that Defendant Marvin Smith was negligent in the operation of his truck and that the plaintiff did not contribute to the occurrence of the collision. The parties disputed, however, what injuries and damages, if any, were proximately caused by the July 28, 2006 accident. Accordingly, the Court held a four-day jury trial on those issues. Following deliberation, the jury declined to award the plaintiff any damages. The plaintiff now moves for a new trial. For the reasons explained below, the motion for a new trial is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

Prior to March 2007, the plaintiff worked as a technical development manager and billing manager at a law firm. Tr., June 15, Part 2 at *57. *fn1 Her responsibilities at the law firm included software programming in a proprietary computer system designed to generate pension plan documents for firm clients. Tr., June 14, at *161-*162. On July 28, 2006, the plaintiff was struck by a dump truck driven by defendant Marvin Smith. Tr., June 14, at *123-*124. The plaintiff suffered an injury to the head and an injury to the arm. Tr., June 15, Part 2 at *74. She was treated at The George Washington University Hospital ("GW") and released the following day. Tr., June 16, at *37. During the course of subsequent treatment at GW, the plaintiff received a neurological evaluation from Dr. Theodore Rothstein. Tr., June 16, at *157. Dr. Rothstein ultimately diagnosed the plaintiff with Parkinson's disease, unrelated to the collision, and treated the plaintiff for Parkinson's disease for an extended period of time. Id.

Several months after the July 2006 collision, in March 2007, the plaintiff was fired from her job as a computer programmer at the law firm. Tr., June 14, at *165, *179. In September 2007, the plaintiff underwent male-to-female gender revision surgery. Tr., June 15, Part 2 at *54-*55. The plaintiff changed her name to Cora Wandel and has subsequently lived as a female. Tr., June 14, at *143.

On July 7, 2009, approximately three years after the collision, the plaintiff brought this lawsuit against the defendants asserting claims for up to two million dollars in compensatory damages and two million dollars in punitive damages resulting from the collision. Compl. ¶ 7.

The week before the scheduled trial, on June 10, 2011, the parties entered a stipulation that defendant "Marvin Smith was negligent in the operation of his truck on July 28, 2006 and that as a result of his negligence, Defendant Smith's truck collided with the Plaintiff." Stipulation, ECF No. 23 (the "Pre-Trial Stipulation"). The parties also stipulated that Smith's actions were within the scope of his employment by defendant Kevin Dockett Sr. Trucking Inc. Id. The Pre-Trial Stipulation further provided that: "The jury is to consider and decide what, if any, injuries and damages were proximately caused by the July 28, 2006 accident, and the nature and extent of these damages." Id.

On June 14, 15, 16, and 17, 2011, the Court held a jury trial on the issues of causation and damages identified in the parties' Pre-Trial Stipulation. At trial, the plaintiff primarily argued that the July 28, 2006 collision and resulting concussion had caused a permanent decline of her cognitive abilities, leading the plaintiff to lose her job as a computer programmer and rendering her unable to perform any work of a comparably high complexity in the future. See, e.g., Tr., June 15, Part 2 at *3, *11. The plaintiff conceded, however, that she still possessed sufficient ordinary cognitive abilities to be employable in other jobs, such as jobs involving clerical tasks, and the plaintiff also testified about her own efforts to start a business after leaving her job at the law firm. Tr., June 16, at *105; Tr., June 15, Part 2 at *8-*10. The plaintiff's primary claim for damages at trial was based on an economic estimate of her alleged lost earnings capacity over the rest of her working life -- reflecting the difference between her compensation in her prior job as a programmer at the law firm and her estimated compensation in the type of clerical job that she conceded she was still capable of performing. Based on the testimony of the plaintiff's economic expert, this claim for damages ranged from approximately $684,000 to $1,324,000. Tr., June 16, at *130-*131; Tr., June 17, at *37.

The defense argued and presented evidence to suggest that any mental deficits that the plaintiff experienced, such as difficulties in memory and concentration, were due to factors unrelated to the collision-namely, the plaintiff's previously diagnosed Parkinson's disease, as well as her documented history of depression and factors related to the gender revision operation and its aftermath. Tr., June 16, at *157; Tr. June 17, at *52-53. The defense also argued that the plaintiff had not been terminated from her job due to any cognitive problems or difficulties with her work, but rather because the law firm was engaging in cost-cutting due to poor financial performance and because the plaintiff intended to leave her job anyway to pursue her gender change surgery. Tr., June 14, at *191-*192, *202.

On June 17, 2011, the parties presented their closing arguments and the jury began deliberations. The jury was instructed to fill out a verdict sheet that read: "What, if any, damages do you award in favor of plaintiff Cora L. Wandel as the direct result of the auto accident of July 28, 2006?" Verdict Sheet, ECF No. 30. The parties mutually drafted this verdict sheet and approved it on the record before jury deliberations began. Tr., June 17, at *59-*60. Following deliberations, the jury rendered a verdict awarding zero dollars to the plaintiff. Id.; Verdict Sheet.

On June 23, 2011, the plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. On June 29, 2011, the plaintiff amended her motion for a new trial. The plaintiff's amended motion for a new trial is presently before the Court.

II.MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL STANDARD

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . 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)(A). "The decision to grant or deny such a motion lies within the sound discretion of the court." Armenian Assembly of America, Inc. v. Cafesjian, Nos. 07-1259 et al., 2011 WL 1745155, at *5 (D.D.C. May 9, 2011) (quotation omitted). To preserve the function of the jury, new trials should not be granted unless "a solid basis for doing so" exists. In re Lorazepam & Clorazepate Antitrust Litig., 467 F. Supp. 2d 74, 87 (D.D.C. 2006) (quoting Warren v. Thompson, 224 F.R.D. 236, 239 (D.D.C. 2004)). "Further, such a motion should be granted only when the court is convinced that the jury verdict was a 'seriously erroneous result' and where denial of the motion will result in a 'clear ...


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