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Nestler v. Fields

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

January 30, 2019

Gary Nestler and Julie Nestler, Appellants,
Joseph E. Fields, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2016-001541

          Heard November 8, 2018

          Appeal From Charleston County Roger M. Young, Sr., Circuit Court Judge.

          Andrew Joseph McCumber, of Slotchiver & Slotchiver, LLP, of Mount Pleasant, for Appellants.

          Alan Ross Belcher, Jr., of Hall Booth Smith, PC, of Mount Pleasant, and Paul Barry Trainor, of Hall Booth Smith, PC, of Atlanta, Georgia, both for Respondent.

          HILL, J.

         A jury awarded Gary Nestler[*] $7, 117.50 actual damages for personal injuries sustained as a result of a car wreck caused by Joseph Fields. Fields admitted he was at fault in causing the wreck and Nestler's injuries, so the trial concerned only the amount of Nestler's damages. Nestler did not introduce the $7, 117.50 amount of his medical bills into evidence, but the trial court overruled his relevance objection when Fields offered them. The trial court also overruled his objection to charging the jury the law regarding mitigation of damages. The trial court denied Nestler's motion for new trial. Nestler appeals, arguing the trial court erred in admitting the amount of his medical bills, charging the jury on mitigation, and denying his new trial motion. We affirm the well-reasoned rulings of the skilled trial judge.


         A. Admission of the Amount of Nestler's Medical Bills

         Nestler claimed injuries including cervical strain, left elbow contusion, tennis elbow, and a permanent impairment rating of 53% for his left upper extremity, which translated to a 32% impairment rating for the whole person. Nestler testified to his consistent pain, the limited range of motion of his left arm, and loss of his ability to engage in and enjoy life like he had before the wreck. His wife related how his injuries hampered his previously active lifestyle.

         Nestler's trial strategy focused on his pain and suffering. In objecting to admission of the amount of his medical bills, he argued the amount was irrelevant to the jury's determination of how much he should be compensated for his loss, and any probative value it had was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. See Rules 401, 402, and 403, SCRE. Nestler reasoned his medical expenses bore no relation to the magnitude of his damages, and allowing the jury to learn of the amount of his expenses would mislead them into believing his pain and suffering could not be extensive. See Corenbaum v. Lampkin, 156 Cal.Rptr.3d 347, 365 (Ct. App. 2015) ("[T]he full amount billed is not admissible for the purpose of . . . proving noneconomic damages."); Martin v. Soblotney, 466 A.2d 1022, 1025 (Pa. 1983) ("[T]here is no logical or experiential correlation between the monetary value of medical services . . . and the quantum of pain and suffering endured as a result of that injury.").

         We may only reverse a trial court's evidentiary rulings if they constitute an abuse of discretion, meaning they rest on an error of law or inadequate factual support. Morin v. Innegrity, LLC, 424 S.C. 559, 575, 819 S.E.2d 131, 140 (Ct. App. 2018). We can find no authority in our state discussing the issue of whether a party seeking actual damages for personal injury may prevent the introduction of his actual medical bills by the other party. We see no error in the admission of the amount of Nestler's medical bills. Under the specific facts here we cannot say the risk of unfair prejudice substantially outweighed the probative value of the billed amount. Rule 403, SCRE; United States v. McRae, 593 F.2d 700, 707 (5th Cir. 1979) ("Unless trials are to be conducted on scenarios, on unreal facts tailored and sanitized for the occasion, the application of Rule 403 must be cautious and sparing. Its major function is limited to excluding matter of scant or cumulative probative force, dragged in by the heels for the sake of its prejudicial effect."). We are confident in the jurors' ability to weigh evidence and must presume they followed their instructions by applying the facts to the law of damages. We see no reason they should be kept ignorant of the cost of Nestler's medical treatment in determining the facts. What they did with that evidence was largely up to them; as the trial court noted, part of the advocate's art is persuading jurors how such evidence should be interpreted. Different cases may warrant different procedural measures, including bifurcation, special verdict forms or limiting instructions.

         B. Jury Instruction on Mitigation of Damages

         Nestler claims the jury should not have been charged that he had a duty to mitigate his damages because there was no evidence any mitigation would have been successful. To warrant reversal, it must not only have been an error for the judge to have instructed the jury on mitigation, but the error must have prejudiced Nestler. See Sulton v. HealthSouth Corp., 400 S.C. 412, 416, 734 S.E.2d 641, 643 (2012) ("An erroneous jury instruction constitutes grounds for reversal only if the appellant can show prejudice from the erroneous instruction.").

         The jury heard evidence that Nestler's treating doctor prescribed extensive physical therapy, a nerve conduction study, and other recommended treatments. It also learned Nestler attended only a fraction of the physical therapy and did not pursue the other options because he believed they would have been futile. Nestler maintains this evidence is not enough to support a mitigation charge because without an expert opinion that his failure to complete the prescribed ...

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