Florida man not satisfied with $250K truck crash verdict
June 15, 2020
A Florida man is asking a federal appeals court to reinstate his $1 million judgment against a North Dakota trucking company in a personal injury crash lawsuit after an Indiana judge first reduced the award then threw the judgment out altogether.
On May 19, Robert Spinnenweber filed an appeal in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a case based on a truck-involved crash. Spinnenweber actually won his case in the Northern District of Indiana. However, the judge reduced the $1 million jury award against Red River Supply and Robert Laducer, one of its drivers.
Case against Red River Supply
The case stems from a crash that 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, 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 eventually filed in February 2014.
After several years of litigation and a two-day trial, a jury sided with Spinnenweber in December 2018. He was awarded $1 million for damages from the crash.
Red River Supply challenges excessive verdict
In January 2019, Red River Supply filed a motion for a new trial. The company claimed the $1 million verdict was “grossly excessive,” according to the motion. Its attorneys claimed the medical evidence submitted does not justify the seven-figure award. In fact, Red River Supply stated the verdict was emotionally biased against the trucking industry.
“Rather than basing the damages awarded on the evidence, it appears the jurors relied on the improper arguments plaintiff’s counsel made during opening and closing statement in which he requested the jurors use the verdict to send a message to trucking companies,” the motion stated.
During closing arguments, Spinnenweber’s attorney told the jury to enter a verdict that would deter future bad conduct from trucking companies “because money speaks volumes to these companies.”
In June 2019, the judge granted the trucking company’s request for a new trial. Spinnenweber “did not request medical treatment at the scene of the accident and continued on his road trip to a go-kart event, where he slept in his van for three nights before driving back to his home approximately 1,000 miles away,” the judge’s order states.
Additionally, no medical records or evidence of lost wages were entered into evidence. In fact, a neurologist only testified that Spinnenweber suffered from whiplash and likely had a “very mild concussion,” court documents reveal. Spinnenweber claimed to develop tinnitus and experienced symptoms consistent with head injuries months after the crash. However, no evidence was submitted to connect those claims to the crash, the judge wrote in his order granting the new trial.
In his order, the judge wrote that the new trial would decide on compensatory damages only, instead of punitive damages as well. Therefore, the request to send a message is inappropriate, the judge stated.
Lastly, Red River Supply argued that the verdict is not consistent with precedent within similar cases.
Spinnenweber attempted to compare his case to three other cases with large jury awards. However, the judge ruled the only similarity with those cases and Spinnenweber’s was the large award. Other than that, “the connection between the award and the evidence in those cases is much more obvious, and the facts differ significantly from the instant case; all included evidence of medical expenses and lost wages,” the judge opined.
When the court reviewed cases that were actually similar, it found verdicts ranging from $30,000 to $215,000.
“Viewing the trial record in the light most favorable to the verdict, there is no rational connection between the scant evidence presented and compensatory award of $1 million,” the court ruled.
Consequently, the judge reduced the jury verdict to $250,000. Spinnenweber had until July 9, 2019, to accept the award or continue with a new trial. He opted for the latter. On March 9, a bench trial resulted in a verdict in favor of Red River Supply.
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 defense withdrew its objection and proceeded to give an opening statement. Spinnenweber then stated he had no witnesses and did not plan to testify himself. The court explained to Spinnenweber that he would not help him try his case. If he did not testify there would be no evidence as to damages. Spinnenweber said he understood. After taking a short break, the court directed a verdict for the defense.
Spinnenweber filed a notice of appeal on April 1. On May 6, the district court judge ordered Spinnenweber to pay Red River Supply nearly $3,000 in costs.
The district court case ended up completely backfiring on Spinnenweber. By denying the amended $250,000 award, he ended up owing $3,000.
Appeal to emotion
In the appeal brief, Spinnenweber’s attorneys attempt to portray him as someone who is not seeking money. Additionally, they claim his life will never be the same.
“Spinnenweber had never made a personal injury claim before this one,” the brief stated. “He was raised not to sue anybody. He had a relative who sued another relative, and they never spoke to each other again.”
Regarding injury claims, Spinnenweber said he told officers at the scene he felt pain. However, he did not immediately seek treatment “because he was in shock,” the brief stated.
His attorneys claimed his life has forever changed because of the crash. The appeal claimed that the crash “changed how he perceived the world,” making it harder to handle difficult situations and his ability to cope.
Backing up claims of memory loss, the appeal brief claims he cannot memorize a prayer that he has been saying for a year or two.
The brief then takes a turn by demanding new regulations for trucks.
“Spinnenweber’s trial lawyer then asked him what he was looking for from the case,” the brief states.” He answered, ‘I’d like to see tractor-trailers with automatic brakes. This could happen through the power of the jury.’”
Most of the deposition provided by Spinnenweber came from friends, neighbors, coworkers and family, not medical experts. The appeal brief goes on to recap those depositions, which mostly describe the perceived negative changes in Spinnenweber from their point of view.
In his appeal, Spinnenweber claimed the district court abused its discretion in its verdict.
He claimed there was sufficient medical evidence. Also, the jury had concluded the crash caused him to become a different person.
“There is no scientific basis for determining what jury should award in a given case,” the appeal stated. “There is no argument that the case or evidence was too complicated, or beyond their ability to understand. Therefore this court should reverse the trial court’s decision out of deference to the jury’s findings and reinstate the jury verdict of $1,000,000.00. This figure will both deter negligent behavior by appellees’ truck driver and compensate appellant for his injuries.”