On June 16, 2023, the Supreme Court of Texas issued an important decision in Chohan v. New Prime, Inc, following a petition for review from the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas, addressing the award of noneconomic damages in a wrongful death case and emphasizing the need for an actual nexus between the award of noneconomic damages and the evidentiary record.
At trial, the evidence showed the driver of an eighteen-wheeler heading eastbound on Interstate 40 lost control of her vehicle and ended up blocking several lanes of traffic, leading to a multi-vehicle pile-up and multiple fatalities. Six family members of one of the decedents sued the driver and trucking company, claiming compensatory damages including economic damages caused by the death, conscious pain and suffering, and the mental anguish and loss of companionship suffered by the decedent's wife, three children and parents. As for an award of noneconomic damages, counsel for the plaintiffs used analogies of the $71 million cost for Boeing F-18 fighter jet and the $186 million valuation for a painting by Mark Rothko in attempt to provide context for the jury.
The Supreme Court of Texas found these analogies to be improper considerations for the jury and disapproved of unsubstantiated anchoring, a tactic in which an attorney suggests a damage amount by referencing objects or values with no rational connection to the case, stating there was no rational connection between the value of a fighter jet and the loss of a human life.
The Court further found improper counsel's use of the "two cents worth argument," whereby counsel argued for an award of "two cents worth for each decedent" and sought "six cents a mile for the six hundred and fifty million miles [the defendants] traveled in a year that they took these people's lives." Again, the court found this argument had no rational connection to the family's mental anguish, but instead was simply intended to punish the defendants as a "deep pocket."
In turning to the proper considerations for determining a noneconomic damages award, the Court acknowledged the inherent difficulty in placing a value on mental anguish but returned to the Court's own jurisprudence on the issue and specifically the need for an evidentiary basis to support an award. Although not strictly required, direct evidence may be most persuasive in proving the "nature, duration, and severity" of the mental anguish suffered by a plaintiff. Examples of direct evidence may include costs of counseling or other mental health resources to help the injured parties in dealing with their grief, or evidence of how the emotional trauma has prevented the plaintiff from working or has otherwise crippled their ability to operate in a financially sound manner.
Although the Court cautioned that the evidentiary basis needed to establish mental anguish and loss of consortium is minimal, it remains necessary nevertheless and awards with no rational connection, grounded in the evidence, between the injuries suffered and the amount awarded, will not be sustained.
The Chohan decision provides an important reminder to the trial and appellate courts throughout Texas that noneconomic damage awards must remain grounded in the evidentiary record. Moreover, the decision provides defense counsel new and important authority to combat tactics, such as unsubstantiated anchoring, by the plaintiff's bar intended to improperly influence juries.