APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Tenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Fergus, Cause No. DV-10-95 Honorable E. Wayne Phillips, Presiding Judge
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Beth Baker
Submitted on Briefs: October 17, 2012
Decided: December 19, 2012
Justice Beth Baker delivered the Opinion of the Court.
¶1 On October 17, 2006, Tyson Murray was a passenger in a car driven by Kyle Dean Whitcraft. Whitcraft lost control of the vehicle, causing a single vehicle collision in which Murray was injured. Murray filed a complaint against Whitcraft seeking damages for injuries allegedly caused by Whitcraft's negligence. Following a three-day jury trial in August 2011, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Murray and awarded him $27,000. The sole issue on appeal is whether the District Court abused its discretion in denying Murray's motion for a new trial. We affirm.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
¶2 On October 17, 2006, Whitcraft was driving back to Jamestown College in North Dakota accompanied by two college acquaintances, Kyle Rector and Tyson Murray. All three young men lived in either Lewistown or Great Falls, Montana, and they had traveled home together for a long weekend. Shortly after leaving Lewistown, Whitcraft lost control of the vehicle on the icy road and struck the guardrail several times. The impact of the vehicle on the guardrail injured both passengers and totaled Whitcraft's vehicle. Whitcraft's father picked up the young men and returned them to Lewistown where Rector and Murray visited the emergency room. Murray was diagnosed with probable neck and right shoulder strain or contusion. Whitcraft subsequently admitted to being legally responsible for the accident.
¶3 Murray, an excellent student, was attending Jamestown College with assistance from an annual financial aid package of nearly $7,000, which included a $500 baseball scholarship. Upon returning to Jamestown, he informed his coach and trainer of the accident and immediately began sports rehabilitation. Despite attempts to rehabilitate his shoulder, Murray was unable to play baseball for the rest of the semester. After experiencing no substantial improvement by January 2007, Murray withdrew from Jamestown College and returned to live with his parents in Great Falls, where he continued to take classes at a local college while undergoing treatment for his shoulder. Despite an open offer from the college, Murray did not return to Jamestown as his injury did not resolve and he was not able to play baseball anymore. He underwent chiropractic treatment until June 2007, and was discharged from all active medical care by January 15, 2008.
¶4 In October 2008, the pain in Murray's shoulder returned after a day of bow hunting. He returned to the doctor and was prescribed more diagnostic tests and physical therapy.
¶5 On October 15, 2009, Murray filed a complaint against Whitcraft seeking damages for medical costs, past, present and future pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and activity, emotional distress, and other compensatory damages arising from the injury sustained in the accident. A jury trial was held August 24-26, 2011. Murray sought damages in the suggested amount of $250,000, including past medical expenses of approximately $35,000. At the conclusion of trial, the jury determined that the accident caused injury to Murray and awarded Murray a total of $27,000 in damages.
¶6 Murray, having presented evidence of past medical expenses totaling $35,030.19, filed a motion for a new trial on the issue of damages. He asserted that the jury's total damages award of $27,000 was supported by insufficient evidence and that, during closing argument, defense counsel "argued matters that were outside of the record." The District Court did not act on Murray's motion and it was deemed denied by operation of law after sixty days. M. R. Civ. P. 59(f).
¶7 We review de novo a district court's denial of a motion for a new trial on the ground of insufficient evidence. Styren Farms, Inc. v. Roos, 2011 MT 299, ¶ 11, 363 Mont. 41, 265 P.3d 1230 (citations omitted). "Our function in reviewing the sufficiency of proof of actual damages is to determine whether there is substantial credible evidence in the record to support the jury's verdict. We must view the evidence in a light most favorable to . . . the prevailing party below, and where the record presents conflicting evidence, resolved by the jury, this Court is precluded from disturbing the verdict." Lauman v. Lee, 192 Mont. 84, 88-89, 626 P.2d 830, 833 (1981). See also Styren Farms,
¶ 11; Ele v. Ehnes, 2003 MT 131, ¶ 25, 316 Mont. 69, 68 P.3d 835. Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind may find adequate to support a conclusion; "it may be less than a preponderance of the evidence, but must be more than a 'mere scintilla.' " Styren Farms, ¶ 11.
¶8 When the basis of a motion for new trial is an irregularity in the proceedings, we review the denial of the motion for a manifest abuse of discretion. Styren Farms, ¶ 12.
¶9 Is Murray entitled to a new trial?
¶10 Jury Instruction No. 15 required the jury to determine whether Whitcraft's admitted negligence caused Murray's injuries and then to calculate the amount of money that would reasonably compensate Murray "for all of the loss caused by Defendant . . . ." (Emphasis added.) The instruction stated:
Provided that the evidence shows that they exist and that the cause of which was the accident in question, the damages should include:
1. Past and Future Health Care Expenses: reasonable value of necessary care, treatment and services received and those reasonably probable to be required in the future.
2. Past and Future Pain and Suffering: reasonable compensation for any pain and suffering experienced and reasonably probable to be experienced in the future by Tyson Murray. . . .
3. Past and Future Emotional Distress: reasonable compensation for any mental and emotional suffering and distress experience[d] by Tyson Murray and reasonably ...