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Proving Causation in Damages-Only Trial; Renner v. Shepard-Bazant

On Behalf of | Jan 10, 2023 | Blog

The plaintiff in this case got the dream of every plaintiff’s attorney—a default judgment against a defendant with an apparent ability to pay. But the case was not done, because the defendant showed up to defend himself in a damages trial. This case is about that trial, and how the trial court erred when assessing damages.

Renner was a cheerleader and a good student at her local high school. In 2013, she fell from a swing set and suffered a concussion. She recovered, but suffered another concussion the next year when she fell during a cheerleading routine. She also recovered from this concussion, but these incidents made it more likely that she would suffer future concussions and more severe symptoms.

In 2016, Shepard-Bazant, a fellow high-school student, rear-ended Renner. Renner felt fine at the scene of the accident, but a severe headache began after Renner returned home. She sought medical attention and was diagnosed with a third concussion. She was told to go to physical therapy and rest.

Unfortunately, the injury happened right before Renner’s senior prom, which she attended against her parents’ wishes. It caused a headache. The next day, Renner went to an amusement park with her friends. This also resulted in a headache that was so severe that Renner did not remember the trip home.

Renner continued seeking medical treatment, and reported headaches, dizziness balance issues, and problems with her concentration and memory. She also injured her head a couple of other times in the summer of 2016—once when she lost her balance and hit her head on a doorknob, and another when she was roughhousing with her brother.

Renner tried attending college in the fall, but her concentration and memory issues severely hampered her ability to perform.

Renner sued Shepard-Bazant and obtained a default judgment. The parties then tried the damages issues to the bench, after which the trial court awarded Renner $132,000 in damages. Renner moved to correct error, but the trial court denied that motion. Renner appealed.

The first issue on appeal was whether the trial court should have discounted Renner’s recovery because of the two concussions she suffered before the accident with Shepard-Bazant. The Court found that the trial court should not have taken that into account, given the evidence in the record—doctors who testified about the cumulative effect of multiple concussions and evidence of more severe symptoms after the accident—and the “eggshell skull rule.”

Given the applicable law, and the undisputed evidence regarding the effects of Renner’s prior concussions upon the severity and long-term effects of the concussion she sustained due to Shepard-Bazant’s negligence, we conclude the court’s treatment of Renner’s prior two concussions as separate incidents, rather than as contributing to Renner’s injuries and damages arising from the auto accident, was against the logic and effects of the facts and circumstances before the court and resulted in error in the calculation of damages.

Shepard-Bazant next argued that Renner’s two later head injuries in the summer of 2016 are what really caused her injuries, not the accident he caused. The Court again disagreed, noting that “none of the doctors” testified that these later two incidents caused Renner’s injuries. Likewise, there was “no evidence” showing that Renner’s family history of migraine headaches were causing her problems, rather than the accident.

Finally, the Court dealt with whether Renner failed to mitigate her damages. The Court held that the evidence supported a finding that Renner acted unreasonably by going to the amusement park after her prom. But the Court found that Shepard-Bazant failed to prove the failure-to-mitigate defense because while all of the doctors said that this may have “extended or exacerbated Renner’s symptoms,” none of them said that this activity caused “a discrete harm separate from the effects of the auto accident.” As evidence of a discrete harm is a necessary element of this defense, Shepard-Bazant failed to meet his burden of proof.

As for the remedy, the Court found that the trial court “adopted its own method of calculating damages.” Therefore, the appellate court would not order the trial court to grant Renner a specific amount of damages and remanded for a retrial.

1. A defendant takes his victim as he finds them.
2. Per the eggshell skull rule, if two prior concussions cause a plaintiff to be especially vulnerable to severe injury from a third concussion, the prior concussions do not reduce her damages.
3. A failure to mitigate damages defense will only reduce damages if the plaintiff’s actions caused the plaintiff to suffer a discrete, identifiable harm arising from that failure.