The right to “Trial by Jury” is the defining characteristic of the American justice system. For centuries, juries have decided factual questions at trial, like who is at fault for causing an injury and how much money should be paid to compensate the injured person for the damages they have suffered. Traditionally, judges have decided issues of law, like whether a case falls under state or federal law or whether certain testimony or documents are admissible as evidence at trial. The judge is only supposed to decide factual questions if the answer is so clear that one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
On April 22, 2022, in the case of Swink v. Reinhart Foodservice, LLC, a federal judge in Ohio made an important ruling for the rights of injury victims in this state. In so doing, the judge also recognized and upheld the traditional role of the jury as the finder of fact at trial. The case involved an Ohio statute, O.R.C. §2315.18(B), first passed in 2005, that sets arbitrary, one-size-fits-all caps on “non-economic damages” in personal injury lawsuits.
Non-economic damages are the human losses that often result from a serious injury. By contrast, “economic damages” are those that can be easily calculated, like the cost of medical treatment and lost wages. When deciding the value of an injured person’s non-economic damages, a jury can consider things like physical pain, emotional distress, shame, embarrassment, frustration, hopelessness, and other forms of suffering that an injured person experiences because of the injury.
The 2005 law caps, or sets a maximum limit on, an injured party’s non-economic damages, regardless of what a jury believes the full value of the injury is. However, if the injured person can show that her injury constitutes a “permanent and substantial physical deformity,” the cap does not apply, and the jury’s value of the injury will be used. The statute does not include any definition of “permanent and substantial physical deformity” or set forth any criteria for determining whether someone’s injury fits into that category. In other words, it’s a prime example of a question of fact that should be up to a jury to decide.
Unfortunately, some courts in Ohio have taken a different approach and taken the issue out of the jury’s hands. In those cases, the courts have decided, as a matter of law, that certain injuries do not rise to the level of a “permanent and substantial physical deformity,” regardless of what a jury might say. Some Ohio appellate courts have even substituted their own factual conclusions about an injury after the jury has rendered its verdict, wiping out the jury’s finding that the plaintiff had suffered a “permanent and substantial physical deformity.” In those cases, the rights of the jurors to decide this important issue were ignored and overlooked.
The federal judge in the Swink case, on the other hand, honored the role of the jury as fact-finder and ruled that, as long as a plaintiff can present credible evidence that the injury could reasonably be considered a “permanent and substantial physical injury,” the jury should decide the issue. In that case the plaintiff, Lea Swink, was seriously injured in a car crash. Lea’s attorney presented expert testimony from a doctor stating that she had significant scarring, permanent changes in her anatomy, and a loss of leg function as a result of the crash. The defendant asked the court to decide, as a matter of law, that Lea’s injury was not severe or noticeable enough to fall under the damage caps exception. The judge denied the request, ruling that the plaintiff’s evidence was enough to create a factual question for a jury. The case is a victory for the rights of injury victims and jurors alike.