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Negligence Per Se Not Established As A Matter of Law - Spoliation - Inadequacy of Compensatory Damages - Future Medicals

Goins v. Advanced Disposal Services Gulf Coast, LLC, et al., [Ms. 1190393, Feb. 19, 2021], ___ So. 3d ___ (Ala. 2021). In a plurality opinion, the Court (Mitchell, J.; Parker, C.J., concurs; Shaw, Bryan, and Mendheim, JJ., concur in the result) affirms the Mobile Circuit Court’s judgment on a jury verdict awarding train conductor Goins $175,000 in compensatory damages for injuries he suffered when the locomotive he was operating collided with an Advanced Disposal garbage truck at a railroad crossing. Dissatisfied with the damages award, Goins appealed raising a number of alleged errors. Ms. *2.

The opinion rejects Goins’s argument that the trial court should have entered judgment as a matter of law for him based on negligence per se arising from the garbage truck driver failing to stop, look, and listen at the crossing and explains “[w]hile we have imposed a duty on motorists to ‘stop, look, and listen’ when crossing railroad tracks, see Ridgeway v. CSX Transp., Inc., 723 So. 2d 600, 605 (Ala. 1998), and have been willing to deem a party contributorily negligent as a matter of law in some instances when that duty was breached, we have not expanded that rule to establish negligence as a matter of law that would bar a defendant from presenting an affirmative defense.” Ms. *10. In addition to evidence showing that Goins was looking away from the crossing prior to the collision, the opinion also emphasizes evidence “that Goins wiped the data from the cell phone that he had at the time of the accident when he knew that the defendants had asked to inspect the phone. Under our case law, the jury was permitted to draw an inference of contributory negligence from Goins’s spoliation of the cell-phone data, so we cannot hold that Goins’s negligence claim was established as a matter of law.” Ms. **11-12.

The opinion likewise rejects the challenge to the adequacy of the compensatory damages award and reiterates settled law that “‘a jury verdict is presumed to be correct and will not be set aside for an inadequate award of damages unless the amount awarded is so inadequate as to indicate that the verdict is the result of passion, prejudice, or other improper motive.’ Helena Chem. Co. v. Ahern, 496 So. 2d 12, 14 (Ala. 1986). At its core, Goins’s argument on appeal is that because he presented uncontroverted evidence of damages, he was entitled to all the damages he requested. But the jury had ample evidence before it to doubt both Goins’s credibility and the assumptions on which his damages claims were based.” Ms. *13. The opinion also rejects plaintiff’s contention that the circuit court erred in excluding evidence of his need for future back surgery. “Dr. Savage, was specifically asked in his deposition about Goins’s need for future surgeries as a result of the accident, and Dr. Savage did not testify that, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, Goins would need future surgeries.” Ms. *16.

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