No Prejudicial Error For Admitting Plaintiff’s Total Past Meds

Romine v. Johnson Controls, Inc. et. al.
2014 WL 1012960 (March 17, 2014)

CASE OVERVIEW
In this strict liability case, involving catastrophic injury, plaintiff was allowed to present her total costs for past medical treatment to the jury. The California Court of Appeal, Second District, concluded it was error to admit evidence of the full amount billed for plaintiff’s medical care in light of Howell v. Hamilton Meats and Corenbaum v. Lampkin. However, defendants failed to show the error was prejudicial on appeal, and the court affirmed the jury’s damage award. 2014 WL 1012960 *14.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff Romine was involved in a five-car accident, which rendered her a quadriplegic. She filed suit for strict products liability, negligent products liability, negligence and negligent entrustment in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Prior to trial, plaintiff settled with several defendants and proceeded only on her strict products liability cause of action. 2014 WL 1012960 *1, 2.

Defendants moved in limine that only those amounts actually paid to plaintiff’s medical providers be admitted. The trial court denied the motion. Thereafter, the parties stipulated that plaintiff’s medical treatment was reasonable and necessary and medical bills for past treatment totaled $777,905. 2014 WL 1012960 *13.

Defendants were found 20% liable. The jury awarded plaintiff $24,744,764 in damages, consisting of $6,744,764, which included the full amount of plaintiff’s past medical treatment. Plaintiff was awarded $18,000,000 in past and future non-economic damages. In judgment, the trial court reduced plaintiff’s award of past medical costs to those accepted by the medical care providers in the amount of $462,608.68. The trial court awarded plaintiff $4,606,926.68 in damages. 2014 WL 1012960 *4.

Defendants appealed contending the trial court erroneously admitted evidence of plaintiff’s total past medical care, which resulted in improper inflation of the jury’s damage award. Plaintiff argued defendants forfeited their right to appeal on this issue by signing the stipulation. 2014 WL 1012960 *13.

UPHELD ON APPEAL – ERROR WAS NOT PREJUDICIAL
Romine concluded the trial court erred in admitting the full amount of plaintiff’s past medical bills, however, the error was not prejudicial. 2014 WL 1012960 *13. Howell v. Hamilton Meats (2011) 52 Cal.4th 541, 555 provides a plaintiff may recover as economic damages no more than the amounts paid by the plaintiff or his or her insurer for the medical services received or still owing at the time of trial. Corenbaum v. Lampkin (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1308, 1319, 1330-1331 provides that evidence of the full amount of past medical care is not relevant to damages for future medical care or non-economic damages. 2014 WL 1012960 *13. The Court noted in Corenbaum, “the record ‘clearly demonstrated’ that the damages awards were based on the full amount billed and not on the lesser amount the plaintiff’s medical providers had accepted as full payment.” 2014 WL 1012960 *13.

The Romine Court concluded defendants did not cite to any evidence or plaintiff’s arguments that the jury award was influenced or based on the stipulation presenting the total past medical care in the amountof $777,905. Given the amount was reduced post-verdict to the amounts accepted by plaintiff’s medical care providers, no prejudice was found. 2014 WL 1012960 *13.

The Court disagreed with plaintiff’s position that defendants forfeited their right to appellate review of the issue by signing the stipulation totaling plaintiff’s past medical care of $777,905. Defendants received an adverse ruling on their motion in limine, and therefore, did not forfeit their claim the jury should not have heard the total amount. 2014 WL 1012960 *13.

DEFENSE COUNSEL’S KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM ROMINE V. JOHNSON

  1. Always File a Howell Motion in Limine: In Romine, it was clear error for the trial court to present the full amount of plaintiff’s past medical specials to the jury. Use the Howell motion in limine as an opportunity to educate the judge on what is at stake in admitting the full amount of past medical treatment for any purpose. Namely, as outlined in Howell and Corenbaum, allowing a jury to consider evidence of the amounts accepted as payment and also the greater amounts billed will create confusion. Additionally, it will violate the collateral source rule, which prohibits introduction of a party’s liability insurance.
    Presenting full billed amounts may also result in an improperly inflated general damages award.
  1. DO NOT STIPULATE: In Romine, (after defendants’ motion in limine was denied), the parties stipulated the full amount of past medical treatment was “reasonable and necessary.” “Losing a battle, doesn’t mean you’ve lost the war.” If a Howell motion in limine is denied pre-trial, continue to voice objections to plaintiff’s full billed amounts when possible. Do not stipulate to presenting the jury with full billed medical specials.
  1. Make a Clear Record: Defendants in Romine did not make a clear record of prejudice, perhaps in part due to the stipulation. As stated above, object to testimony and/or evidence presenting the full amount of past medical treatment. Be sure to mention the amounts actually paid in closing. If anything, keep an eye on creating a strong record to limit damages post-trial or on appeal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Heppenstall graduated from California Western School of Law in 2008. Ms. Heppenstall’s focus is on general liability and personal injury. Contact her at 858.263.41200 or jheppenstall@tysonmendes.com.

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