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O'NEILL v. YIELD HOUSE INC.

January 19, 1995

JOHN O'NEILL, Plaintiff, against YIELD HOUSE INC, AND STANDEX INTERNATIONAL CORPORATION, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: BARRINGTON D. PARKER, JR.

 BARRINGTON D. PARKER, JR. U.S.D.J.

 This products liability action was tried before a jury between November 10 and November 22, 1994. The action is now before the court upon plaintiff's motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59 on the issue of compensatory damages and upon defendant's cross motion pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff's punitive damages claim. For the reasons set forth below, both motions are denied.

 Plaintiff John O'Neill, who is 68 years old, suffered a fracture of the tibial plateau on May 19, 1990 when a stepstool collapsed under him. Plaintiff, who weighed approximately 325 pounds at the time of his accident, had purchased the stepstool through the catalogue of defendant, Yield House, which represented that its product was "ruggedly built" and "solidly made." As a result of his accident, plaintiff had to be hospitalized for several months and has since been confined to a wheelchair.

 At the trial of this action, the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff in which it awarded him $ 75,000 for past pain and suffering, $ 65,000 for past medical expenses, $ 50,000 for future pain and suffering and $ 65,000 for future medical expenses. The jury also awarded plaintiff $ 250,000 in punitive damages.

 II. DISCUSSION

 A. Compensatory Damages

 Plaintiff argues that his award does not adequately compensate him for his injuries. He argues that evidence of his confinement in the hospital for months after the accident, his months of physical rehabilitation, his present reliance on a wheelchair and his future intention to have a knee replacement were not adequately addressed in the jury award.

 The amount of damages to be awarded is primarily a question of fact (see Duffy v. City of New York, 178 A.D.2d 370, 577 N.Y.S.2d 820 (1st Dept. 1991)). Great deference must be accorded the interpretation of the evidence by the jury if there is present sufficient and credible evidence to support that interpretation, even if other evidence can be found in the record which would support the opposite conclusion. See Olszowy v. Norton Co, 159 A.D.2d 884, 886, 553 N.Y.S.2d 224 (3d Dept 1990); see also Vail v. Keeler, 166 A.D.2d 817, 818, 562 N.Y.S.2d 818 (3d Dept. 1990).

 While it was contested, a jury could have found that plaintiff's claimed damages may have been due in some part to his own disposition. There was testimony, some of which came from plaintiff himself, that plaintiff had some motivational problems. Nurses' notes adverted to plaintiff's failure to go to his physical therapy, and defendant's expert said there was no physiological reason for his confinement to a wheelchair. Thus, while there was conflicting testimony, and various inferences could be drawn, a jury could have inferred that plaintiff's lack of progress was due in some part to his own temperament rather than the liability of the defendant.

 B. Punitive Damages

 Under New York law, punitive damages are recoverable in actions based on tortious conduct that involves malice, oppression, wanton or reckless disregard of the plaintiff's rights or other circumstances of aggravation (see Grau v. Eljay Real Estate Corp., 162 A.D.2d 320, 556 N.Y.S.2d 898, 899 (1990)). Further, punitive damages are not restricted to intentional injury and can be awarded where negligence is shown to be gross or wanton. Home Insurance v. American Home Products, 75 N.Y.2d 196, 551 N.Y.S.2d 481, 550 N.E.2d 930 (Ct.App. 1990). Finally punitive damages are appropriate in products liability cases where acts of defendant causing the injury were wanton or reckless. Racich v. Celotex, 887 F.2d 393, 396 (2d Cir. 1989).

 Like compensatory damage awards, an award of punitive damages should be set aside when it shocks the judicial conscience Reynolds v. Pegler, 123 F. Supp. 36 (S.D.N.Y. 1954) aff'd, 223 F.2d 429 (2d Cir. 1955), cert. denied, 350 U.S. 846, 100 L. Ed. 754, 76 S. Ct. 80 (1955), it is not reasonably calibrated to a defendant's financial ...


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