Appeals court affirms ‘zero verdict’ in truck crash case

December 31, 2020

Tyson Fisher

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An appellate court sided with trucking company Red River Supply in a crash case where the plaintiff walked away with nothing after demanding more money from the initial verdict and then asking for a “zero verdict” during a new trial.

On Dec. 18, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision to award Richard Spinnenweber exactly nothing. A jury originally awarded Spinnenweber $1 million before the district court judge reduced the amount to $250,000. Not satisfied with the ruling, the case moved to a new trial, which left Spinnenweber with nothing.

The crash occurred on May 17, 2012. At around noon that day, Spinnenweber was driving his Dodge Caravan in the right westbound lane of Interstate 94 in Porter County, Ind. At the same time, Robert Laducer was driving a Kenworth tractor-trailer owned by Red River Supply in the center westbound lane of I-94.

According to the complaint, Laducer negligently changed lanes, and the truck collided with the Caravan. Spinnenweber sustained injuries and incurred medical bills from those injuries. A lawsuit against Red River Supply was filed in February 2014.

Red River Supply admitted liability, leaving a trial over causation and damages. Spinnenweber only asked for compensation for physical injuries, which consisted mostly of whiplash and a possible minor concussion. However, the complaint did not seek compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, punitive damages or mental/emotional damages.

Despite the modest request for compensation, the jury ordered Red River Supply to pay Spinnenweber $1 million in damages.

Shocked by the verdict, the district court judge gave Spinnenweber two options: Accept a reduced amount of $250,000 or get a new trial. A new trial was eventually granted.

At the bench trial, Spinnenweber represented himself pro se. In a bizarre twist of events, the following took place during the bench trial, according to court documents:

Spinnenweber then gave his opening statement. He told the court he was asking for a symbolic verdict, not another value or valuation of the case, but a silent verdict. The defense objected. Spinnenweber was allowed to continue. He wanted a moment of silence.

“I am asking you for your silence, your honor. Give me this symbolic verdict. Give me a zero verdict,” he said, according to the appeals brief.

The district court did exactly that. Ironically, Spinnenweber appealed the decision.

“The bizarre nature of these events is not lost on us,” the appellate panel opined. “But Spinnenweber walked away with the $0 he asked for. And now, represented by counsel, he appeals his final judgment of $0 and the district court’s order granting defendants’ motion for remittitur or a new trial.”

The appellate court ruled that there was no evidence that Spinnenweber suffered injuries caused by the crash other than whiplash and a mild concussion. With that in mind, the panel also ruled that the district court was correct in deciding that $1 million for those damages was excessive.

“We recognize that the result of our decision is that Spinnenweber gets no money on a claim for which (Red River Supply) conceded liability and indisputably owed him something – in the district court’s eyes, as much as $250,000,” the appellate panel states. “But Spinnenweber was hoisted with his own petard. He did not have to seek $0 in his second trial, and we can’t change that he did.” LL

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Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.