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Traumatic Brain Injury Jury Awards Reinstated on Appeal after Substantial Increase by Trial Judge

Posted in Brain Injuries, Loss of Consortium Damages

On November 7, 2013, Paige Mecca, a 43 year old owner of a small solar energy company, was struck in the head and neck by a large 40 pound tray of dishes and food dropped by a waitress who lost her balance at a luncheon at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

The Buffalo Niagara Convention Center

Claiming that the convention center was liable for the negligence of its waitress and Ms. Mecca’s resulting traumatic brain injuries, suit was brought in Supreme Court, Erie County. On October 11, 2016, the jury returned a verdict finding the defendant fully at fault for the incident and injuries and awarding plaintiff pain and suffering damages in the sum of $625,000 ($250,000 past – three years, $375,000 future – 36 years).

In a post-trial motion, Ms. Mecca successfully argued that the damages award was inadequate; the the judge ordered an increase to $3,800,000 ($800,000 past, $3,000,000 future).

On appeal in Mecca v. Buffalo Niagara Convention Center Management Corp. (4th Dept. 2018), the trial judge’s increase was set aside and jury’s  pain and suffering award was reinstated.

Here are the injury details:

  • traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • cerebral hypoperfusion
  • concussion
  • cognitive fatigue and impairment
  • memory loss
  • jamais vu (unfamiliarity with her surroundings)
  • impaired coordination and balance, dizziness, double vision
  • complex partial seizures
  • C4-5 and C5-6 disc herniations
  • sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and sexual difficulties
  • can no longer drive a car, take a vacation, hike or be intimate with her husband
  • has only about two hours of “good time” a day, remaining essentially housebound except for medical care

Plaintiff claimed that all of her injuries are permanent, she has not and cannot return to work and she will require lifelong medical treatment. Defendant contended that plaintiff exaggerated her symptoms, malingered and her alleged injuries were nowhere near as serious as she claimed. They also claimed she had significant pre-existing conditions including neck pain for which she (briefly) treated with an acupuncturist, a concussion (12 years earlier) and migraine headaches (associated with her hormonal cycle).

A central disagreement between the parties was whether there was sufficient, or any, objective proof of a brain injury. Plaintiff conceded that she had no visible bruises from the incident, there was no loss of consciousness, she remained at the luncheon until it ended and did not seek any medical attention until she was treated briefly at an urgent care center that night. She did, though, follow up with a neurologist two days later complaining of disorientation, confusion, headaches, dizziness and anxiety. She soon began experiencing seizures and over the next three years, Ms. Mecca treated extensively for these and other injuries (especially, neck pain) with providers in many different specialties including neurology, spine surgery, orthopedic surgery, concussion, physical therapy, ophthalmology and psychology. And she went for treatment and second opinions five times at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Although most diagnostic testing (MRI, CT, EEG) did not disclose any objective brain injury, a so-called  SPECT scan (single-photon emission computerized tomography) showed a pattern of hypoperfusion affecting several areas and significant volume of the brain, consistent with traumatic brain injury. Two defense medical experts contended, though, that  SPECT studies are generally unreliable and one of them, a neurosurgeon who examined plaintiff, concluded that she had no injury, impairment or disability to her brain and that she has “either a psychosomatic conversion reaction or is malingering, fabricating, hysterical or a combination of these.”

Plaintiff claimed she will require substantial medical treatment for the rest of her life, including medications, diagnostic tests, cognitive, physical and other therapies and home health aide services. Her life care plan specialist opined that the cost for all future medical expenses will be $2,200,000. The defense argued that plaintiff required no future medical treatment at all due to the incident. The jury awarded past medical expenses in the sum of $49,000 plus future medical expenses in the sum of $617,000 (36 years). The trial judge increased the future medical expense award to $2,200,000 but the appellate court reinstated the $617,000 jury award.

The jury also awarded $582,330 for past lost wages and business profits (Ms. Mecca had been earning about $130,000 a year and her business was growing substantially until she was injured) plus $500,000 for the future (14 years). After the trial judge ordered an increase of the future award to $5,000,000, the appellate court reinstated the jury award.

Plaintiff’s husband presented a claim for the loss of his  wife’s services and society based upon “the virtual loss of his active, vibrant, loving and caring wife.” He asserted he now has to bear sole responsibility for caring for, nurturing and guiding their three teen-age sons, faces the prospect of all of the years with his wife after the boys have grown and left home and that the loss of his wife’s significant financial contributions to the family has put extra financial pressure on him.  The jury awarded loss of services and society damages in the sum of $950,000 ($300,000 past, $650,000 future – 10 years), an amount the trial judge did not disturb and the appellate court affirmed.

Inside Information:

  • When the jury announced a verdict had been reached, there was no award at all for Mr. Mecca’s loss of services and society. Plaintiff’s counsel immediately argued that this was inconsistent since the jury found for plaintiff on liability and awarded her substantial past and future damages in all other categories. After some colloquy on the record, the trial judge asked the jurors if they rejected this claim upon which the foreperson told the judge they “decided that we didn’t have to do separate amounts for [plaintiff and her husband]. We didn’t realize.” The judge told them they have to “separately decide that,”  he recharged the jury and 20 minutes later they announced a $950,000 verdict for loss of services and society.
  • In his summation, plaintiff’s counsel asked the jury to award “three to four million dollars” for past pain and suffering and for the future an amount at least equal to plaintiff’s entire economic loss. Defense counsel focused on his contention that his clients were not at all negligent while suggesting that if the jury were to rule otherwise $100,000 should be awarded for pain and suffering.
  • The defendants argued that plaintiff caused the accident when plaintiff, after having leaned forward in her chair causing its rear legs to come off the ground, then leaned backward as the waitress with the tray walked by and the chair came down on her foot causing her to lose her balance. There was no corroborating evidence as to this version of the facts.