Awarding Future Damages in Jury Trials
By Daniel and Kristen Buttafuoco
In New York personal injury and death actions, damages for future losses (future medical bills and future lost wages) must be stated in future dollars. This means that the attorney for the accident victim (or the deceased’s family) must project these losses to the jury in terms of the cost they will be in the future. The reason for this is that all future damages in jury trials get reduced after the verdict by the trial judge who must get involved with complex calculations necessary to reduce the verdict to present day value. The injured plaintiff then gets the reduced amount, not what the jury gives!
This is tricky for plaintiffs. This law forces the plaintiffs attorney to ask the jury for what may seem to be an outrageous sum of money. Yet, it is NOT at all outrageous because these amounts will look very different once they are reduced by the judge after the verdict. The jury must follow the law and state the verdict in future dollars. If the jury does not take this into account and states the verdict in what they believe is reasonable for today’s economy, the plaintiff gets cheated because the amount will essentially be reduced twice (first by the jury, who took matters into their own hands, and second by the judge who must act under the assumption that the jury followed the law and did render a verdict in future dollars)!
Other means of resolving cases, such as settlements and payments are always in present dollars. If the defendant offers a sum of money to the plaintiff for damages caused and the plaintiff accepts that offer instead of proceeding further with the lawsuit, that amount is in present dollars. Jury verdicts, however, as previously stated, are in future dollars. This is because a jury verdict (in civil personal injury cases) is only for informational purposes. It is raw data that is used for a series of complex calculations after the trial is over. Juries should not think that plaintiffs will receive the amounts stated in the verdict. They do not. They receive a greatly reduced amount after those complex calculations are performed on the jury’s raw verdict amounts.
For this reason the jury must follow the law and, if they believe that the plaintiff will have future damages, award the amounts projected. The plaintiff’s attorney will often bring in an expert economist to testify what is necessary in future dollars. The jury should not be put off by these seemingly large numbers. These projections are very real and not inflated.
It is a matter of simple economics. For example, in 1958, the cost of a movie ticket was $0.58. Fast-forward 50 years to the present and a movie ticket is a whopping $10.00. That is over 17 times the amount that it was in the past! Now, $9.42 may not seem like a great deal of money to most people. But our clients are not worried about whether they are going to have enough money to go see a movie in the future, so let’s talk about things the injured plaintiffs will really need.
Assume the plaintiff was in a car accident and suffered neck or back injuries as a result of that accident. Now the plaintiff needs physical therapy. We’ll start with a very modest estimate, 18 visits per year. That’s an average of 1-2 physical therapy appointments per month. Physical therapy in 2008 costs an average of $100 per visit, for a total of $1800. Now increase these amounts by 5% per year (as per data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and 30 years from now the plaintiff will be paying $7,779 per year for physical therapy visits. If you add all those yearly numbers in between, by 2038 the plaintiff will have spent $127,370 on physical therapy visits alone!
But that’s not all…if the physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor prescribes trigger point injections (which they often do) once a week at $75 per session, with that same 5% increase, by the year 2038 the plaintiff will have spent $349,560 on that!
Now how about some medication? Muscle relaxers or pain killers? Let’s say in 2008 those things cost $50 per month. Medication costs, according to the U.S. Bureau, increase at an even faster rate of 6%. So by the year 2038, the plaintiff will have spent $50,881 on necessary medications.
Add these three basic categories together and already that is over half a million dollars in future medical costs! And that is not counting doctor visits, additional x-rays or MRI’s, possible surgeries, or lost wages because the plaintiff is unable to return to work!
Let’s say that taking all this into account, a jury gave a verdict of $1 million dollars. Does that mean that once everyone leaves the defendant’s insurance company hands the plaintiff a check for $1,000,000? Absolutely not! That $1,000,000 is reduced by the court, using those complex calculations we discussed earlier and the plaintiff ultimately will receive that value in today’s present dollars, which hopefully will cover their medical expenses.
If you are ever chosen for jury duty in the future, please keep this in mind. Being a juror, while sometimes inconvenient, is a great honor and responsibility. It is one of the institutions that makes this country great. We are telling you this information because one day you might be chosen to be a juror, in which case you can help us do our job. We take our job very seriously. Our job is to help accident victims rebuild their lives.