Jury Places Blame with Plaintiff, Reduces Damages Award by Nearly Half

Case Caption:  David Mitchell v. Troy Moss, Civil Action File No. 11CV2954
Court:  Bartow County Superior Court
Judge:  Honorable D. Scott Smith
Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Jesse Vaughn of Vaughn & Clements; David Groover; Scott Forster
Defendant’s Attorneys: G. Lee Welborn, Downey & Cleveland
Alleged Damages:
Severe burns, permanent scarring
Verdict:  $250,000
Date of Verdict: February 7, 2013

Summary:
Plaintiff David Mitchell was visiting his father-in-law, Defendant Troy Moss, and the two were trying to get a riding lawn mower to run.  Defendant was pouring gas into the mower’s carburetor when the engine backfired.  While the cause was disputed, there was no doubt that Plaintiff was engulfed in flames and suffered severe burns.  Plaintiff claimed the gas cup Defendant was holding caught on fire and that Defendant threw the burning gas onto Plaintiff.  Defendant, however, said that the burning gas blew out of the engine when the engine backfired.  Nevertheless, Plaintiff underwent extensive medical treatment, including several surgeries.  His medical bills totaled $223,000.  Plaintiff’s medical expenses were not covered by insurance because he had heart surgery earlier in 2010 and had exhausted his insurance benefits.  Plaintiff made a policy limits demand of $1.5 million; the demand was not accepted.

At trial, Defendant argued that Plaintiff failed to exercise ordinary care because he was aware of the danger involved in pouring gas into an open carburetor, yet leaned over the engine during the whole process.  The jury was charged on assumption of the risk, comparative negligence, and apportionment of damages.  The verdict form also included an apportionment of fault section.  The jury returned a verdict of $250,000.  During deliberations, the jury asked two questions about apportionment and ultimately apportioned fault for the accident between the two parties, finding that Plaintiff was 49% at fault and Defendant was 51% at fault.  The jury was instructed not to adjust damages to account for the fault of the parties.  Judge Smith charged the jury that the Court would handle that process.  After the verdict was reduced to account for Plaintiff’s own fault, Plaintiff was awarded $127,500, a sum significantly less than the total of Plaintiff’s medical bills.         

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