The opinion of the court was delivered by: GOETTEL
All the major parties to this wrongful death litigation have filed motions to amend the judgment in these cases.
The plaintiff has also moved for a new trial. the various motions raise numerous issues. Many of these issues were debated at length during the trial and need not be repeated.
Others are completely frivolous.
Some are humorous.
Still other are immaterial.
There are a few issues, however, that deserve some comment.
A. Motion for a New Trial -- Calculation of Future Damages
The plaintiff moves for a new trial because of claimed prejudicial error in this Court's instructions to the jury on the calculation of future damages.
The plaintiff presented an economic "expert" who began by computing the decedent's anticipated future earnings based on a number of debatable assumptions. Even accepting these assumptions, it was clear that the total figure was enormously exaggerated. At the time of his death, Albert Woodling was a young accountant making a modest salary. Based on current dollars, the plaintiff's expert was estimating that the decedent's final salary would be well up into six figures. The "expert" was repeatedly prodded by defense counsel and the Court to reconsider his arithmetic. He declined to do so, claiming he needed a computer to make his calculations, rather than the calculator proffered to him in court. At the conclusion of the court day, he returned to his office and worked with his computer. The next day, he confessed sheepishly that he had made a mathematical error of future lost earnings of almost a million dollars! (He blamed this error on an associate's computer input.)
The plaintiff's expert declared that the true investment rate of return in the future would be only one percent. The evidence established that, at the present time, several safe, tax-free investments are yielding approximately seven percent. The evidence also established that the current inflation rate is only three and a fraction percent. Indeed, the plaintiff's expert acknowledged that there was no reason to assume a future inflation rate much in excess of four percent. Consequently, although the expert was predicting a future rate of one percent, the present true rate of return is approximately three to four percent.
The defendants called no economic experts. The Court, in its charge concerning the need for reducing future losses to current value, noted that the Court of Appeals for this Circuit, based on its analysis of long term historical figures, has suggested that the real investment return rate has averged one and one-half to two percent a year. However, the charge also emphasized that the figures vary from time to time, depending on economic conditions, and that the jury was responsible for determining the correct figure in reducing the future damages to present value.
The plaintiff contends that this was prejudicial and reversible error, requiring a new trial. The plaintiff argues that the only evidence was her expert's opinion and that the jury was, therefore, compelled to accept, and should have been instructed to accept, a figure of one percent as the true long term future investment return rate.
We view the expert's opinion as a prediction, rather than as "evidence" in the true sense. The prediction made by the plaintiff's expert was contrary to the existing evidence of a present three to four percent rate, as well as the Second Circuit's holdings as to what the unimpeachable historical facts demonstrate. A jury is entitled to exercise its independent judgment even if opinion testimony is uncontradicted. Sartor v. Arkansas Natural Gas Corp., 321 U.S. 620, 627-28, 88 L. Ed. 967, 64 S. Ct. 724 (1944); Commercial Casualty Insurance Co. v. Roman, 269 N.Y. 451, 456-57, 199 N.E. 658 (1936).
In the federal system, the trial judge bears a heavy responsibility for seeing that a jury is not misled by questionable testimony. The Second Circuit has made it clear that district courts are obligated to prevent juries from being unduly influenced by economic experts who expound unreasonable computations of economic losses. We must do this by carefully instructing the jury before it considers improper evidence, rather than by reducing excessive verdicts after trial. See Shu-Tao Lin v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 742 F.2d 45, 49 (2d Cir. 1984).
Chief Judge Weinstein, of the Eastern District of New York, recently discussed this duty of a federal trial judge in an address delivered at the Federal Bar Council Law Day Dinner in New York City. Upon being awarded the Learned Hand Medal for Excellence in Federal Jurisprudence, Judge Weinstein recalled Learned Hand's 1901 paper entitled, "Historical and Practical Considerations Regarding Expert Testimony." Hand had reflected on quandries that still confront federal trial judges, e.g., the ability of lay juries to evaluate evidence in fields as to which they are ignorant. After noting several solutions proposed by Judge Hand, Judge Weinstein concluded, "I support Hand's view that courts have the responsibility to prevent charlatans from overwhelming lay juries with hysteria and misleading pseudo-science." N.Y.L.J., May 2, 1986, at 3, col. 1. This Court's instructions in this case did no more than that. The instructions as a whole were proper and accurate. The plaintiff's assumption that the Court's instructions on reducing future damages to present value were responsible for an inadequate verdict is, at best, speculation, and, at worst, an attempt to avoid responsibility for presenting highly inaccurate and dubious expert testimony. The motion for a new trial is, therefore, denied.
B. Motions to Amend Judgment -- ...