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Akermanis v. Sea-Land Service Inc.

decided: September 14, 1982.


Appeal and cross-appeal from a judgment of the District Court for the Southern District of New York (Charles S. Haight, Jr., Judge) awarding the plaintiff damages in a Jones Act suit, 46 U.S.C. § 688 (1976), for injuries caused by the defendant's negligence, but reducing the jury's original damage award pursuant to a "remittitur," accepted by the plaintiff, that increased the plaintiff's contributory negligence factor from four to 25 percent.

Feinberg, Chief Judge, Newman and Winter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Newman

NEWMAN, Circuit Judge:

This appeal concerns primarily the issue, apparently one of first impression in the federal courts, whether a trial judge may use the device of a new trial order conditioned on a remittitur to increase a jury's determination of the percent of responsibility for an injury that is attributable to a plaintiff's contributory negligence. That device was employed in this suit under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688 (1976), brought by plaintiff Carl O. Akermanis, an injured seaman, against defendant shipowner Sea-Land Service, Inc. After plaintiff agreed to the remittitur, the District Court for the Southern District of New York (Charles S. Haight, Jr., Judge) entered judgment on November 17, 1981, in favor of the plaintiff. 521 F. Supp. 44. Defendant appeals, contending that it is entitled to an unconditional order for a new trial. Plaintiff cross-appeals, seeking an increased judgment based on the jury's initial determination as to the share of responsibility attributable to his negligence. For reasons that follow, we conclude that a remittitur may not be used to adjust a jury's contributory negligence percentage, and we therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

In the spring of 1977, Akermanis was a third assistant day engineer aboard Sea-Land's vessel S/S Los Angeles during a voyage from Greece to Rotterdam. One of the plaintiff's duties was to replace deteriorated angle irons on pedestals used to secure the vessel's deck cranes. At trial, Akermanis contended that the defendant's negligence caused him to injure himself while working on these pedestals. Although there was conflicting evidence, Akermanis testified that on June 4, 1977, his superiors instructed him to work on the deck burning off a rusted pedestal bracket, despite rolling seas and a deck slippery from the ocean's spray. According to the plaintiff, as a result of these unsafe working conditions, he lost his balance, hit his head against the pedestal, and hurt his back when his head was snapped backwards as he fell. The accident was said to have severely injured Akermanis' cervical spine and forced his early retirement from the merchant marine.

Sea-Land Service contested almost all of Akermanis' allegations. First, Sea-Land claimed that Akermanis' injuries stemmed not from an accident aboard the Los Angeles, but rather from several preexisting ailments. Second, Sea-Land contended that it was in no way to blame for the condition of the Los Angeles on June 4, 1977, that Akermanis had not been ordered to work on the pedestal bracket at any particular time, and that any risks Akermanis faced while working on the deck were inherent in the life of a seaman. In addition, Sea-Land raised the defense of contributory negligence, arguing that, if working on the pedestal was unsafe, Akermanis, who was 59 years old and had 30 years of maritime experience at the time of the accident, should have been able to appreciate the danger and rearrange his schedule to work below deck until the weather cleared. According to the defendant, Akermanis had considerable discretion in scheduling his work. Moreover, counsel for Sea-Land suggested that the alleged accident was more likely the result of Akermanis' carelessness in doing his job than any fault of the defendant. Finally, Sea-Land introduced evidence through a series of expert witnesses that contradicted the testimony of Akermanis' doctors as to the extent and cause of his spinal injuries.

In response to a special verdict form, the jury found that Sea-Land was negligent, that its negligence was a proximate cause of Akermanis' June 4, 1977, accident, and that as a result of the accident, Akermanis suffered damages totaling $528,000. The jury further found that Akermanis also was negligent and that the share of responsibility attributable to his negligence was four percent.

Following the jury's verdict, Sea-Land moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, for a new trial, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b). After reviewing the record, Judge Haight concluded that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's findings that negligence on the part of the defendant caused the plaintiff's injuries. Because it was not "'clear that the jury had reached a seriously erroneous result ,'" Bevevino v. M.S. Saydjari, 574 F.2d 676, 684 (2d Cir. 1978) (quoting 6A Moore's Federal Practice P59.08[5], at 59-160 to -161 (1973)), the District Court denied defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, see Berner v. British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines, Ltd., 346 F.2d 532, 538 (2d Cir. 1965) (evidence must be viewed most favorably for the defendant on j.n.o.v. motion), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 983, 15 L. Ed. 2d 472, 86 S. Ct. 559 (1966), and declined to order a new trial of all the issues.

Judge Haight then considered the jury's finding that plaintiff's contributory negligence was a four percent cause of the accident, and concluded that the selection of this percentage was against the weight of the evidence, in his view a "clear and serious error." While he agreed that it was reasonable for the jury to determine that Sea-Land's negligence was the major cause of the accident, he rejected four percent as the measure of plaintiff's share of responsibility. His reasoning is set forth in his memorandum opinion. He first assumed that the jury's finding of plaintiff's contributory negligence was based on their acceptance of defendant's evidence that Akermanis had some discretion to determine when he would work on the ship's pedestals and had exercised that discretion without using reasonable care. Judge Haight then determined that a factor of only four percent for contributory negligence of this sort was against the weight of the evidence and so substantially below jury determinations in similar Jones Act cases as to warrant a new trial. After referring to cases cited at 44A Modern Federal Practice Digest Seamen § 29(4) (H) (West 1968), he concluded that the lowest contributory negligence factor the evidence would support was 25 percent. He therefore ordered a new trial on liability issues, but with the condition that the defendant's motion for new trial would be denied if the plaintiff would accept a "remittitur" of damages based on an increase of the contributory negligence factor from four to 25 percent. The plaintiff accepted, and judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiff for 75% of the jury's determination of the total amount of damages suffered.


We consider first Sea-Land's appeal, which challenges the District Court's authority to use the device of a remittitur to adjust the jury's determination of the contributory negligence percentage. Remittitur is a limited exception to the sanctity of jury fact-finding. It allows trial judges to reduce damages, but only when an award is grossly excessive. As the Supreme Court has stated, this exception is justified because, "where the verdict is excessive, the practice of substituting a remission of the excess for a new trial is not without plausible support in the view that what remains is included in the verdict along with the unlawful excess -- in that sense that it has been found by the jury -- and that the remittitur has the effect of merely lopping off an excrescence," Dimick v. Schiedt, 293 U.S. 474, 486, 79 L. Ed. 603, 55 S. Ct. 296 (1935). But in Dimick, the Supreme Court made clear that remittitur was not an expansive doctrine: "Maintenance of the jury as a fact-finding body is of such importance and occupies so firm a place in our history and jurisprudence that any seeming curtailment of the right to a jury trial should be scrutinized with the utmost care." Id.

In giving that scrutiny to the use of remittitur in this case, we note a fundamental difference between the use of remittitur to decrease a determination of damages and its use here to increase a contributory negligence percentage. Though both have the same ultimate consequence of reducing the amount of the judgment that the plaintiff is invited to accept as the price of avoiding a new trial, the means by which the reduction is accomplished differ in a way that is critical to determining the lawfulness of the technique. A conditional reduction of a damage calculation leaves in the judgment a portion of what the jury awarded, a circumstance that the Supreme Court considered crucial to its willingness to permit remittitur while rejecting additur in Dimick. In this case, however, the conditional adjustment of the contributory negligence percentage inserts into the judgment something beyond what the jury found: a conclusion that the plaintiff's negligence was responsible for a greater share of the accident than the jury had thought. In Dimick, the four dissenters thought it was needlessly artificial to deny a trial judge the authority to condition a new trial order on payment of an additur while permitting him to use the device of remittitur. In either circumstance, they argued, the judge is simply conditioning the new trial order on the minimum adjustment necessary to render the verdict within the bounds of reasonableness. But their view did not prevail. We are therefore obliged to apply the rationale of the Dimick majority, which, as we understand it, precludes any adjustment that extends a jury's finding, even if that extension results in a reduced monetary judgment.*fn1

We have located only one case in which a trial court attempted to use the remittitur device to adjust a jury's contributory negligence assessment, and that decision did not survive appellate review. In Ferguson v. Chester A. Poling, Inc., 285 N.Y.S. 340, 247 A.D. 727 (2d Dep't 1936) (per curiam), also a Jones Act case, the jury found that the plaintiff had suffered damages of $25,000, and then reduced this sum by $5,000 because the plaintiff's contributory negligence was a 20 percent cause of the accident. The trial court thought the lowest reasonable contributory negligence factor was 60 percent and therefore ordered a new trial unless the plaintiff agreed to a reduction in the judgment from $20,000 to $10,000. The Appellate Division reversed because "the question of apportioning the negligence was peculiarly within the province of the jury." Id. at 341, 247 A.D. at 728. We agree with the New York court that a jury's apportionment of responsibility in a Jones Act ...

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