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Vandevender v. Blue Ridge of Raleigh, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

July 1, 2017

GERALDINE L. VANDEVENDER, Administrator of the Estate of DEL RAY BAIRD, deceased, and JACQUELINE ANN BAIRD, deceased, RALPH D. JONES, JR., NORWOOD R. JONES, and LISA J. PATE, Co-Executors for the Estate of ELIZABETH J. JONES, deceased, and JOYCE K. HARRISON, Administrator of the Estate of BETTIE MAE KEE, deceased, and Estate of SAMUEL KEE, SR., deceased, Plaintiffs,



         This matter comes before the Court on plaintiffs' motion for interest on judgment, [DE 286], defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of punitive damages, [DE 289], and defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law as to Elizabeth Jones' medical malpractice claim, [DE 290]. The matters have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, plaintiffs' motion is granted, defendants' motion as to punitive damages is granted, and defendants' motion as to Elizabeth Jones is denied.


         Trial of this medical malpractice and wrongful death action was conducted before the undersigned from February 13, 2017, to February 16, 2017 in Elizabeth City, NC.[1] At the close of the plaintiffs' case in chief, defendants made an oral motion for directed verdict as to all of the plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This motion was denied by oral order on February 15, 2017. Defendants renewed their motion at the close of their case in chief, which the Court held in abeyance pending the jury's rendering of a verdict. At the close of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs for medical malpractice, awarding the plaintiffs compensatory and punitive damages.

         On March 2, 2016, plaintiffs filed a motion for interest on the judgment under Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. On March 16, defendants filed separate motions for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rules 50 and 59 as to the issues of punitive damages and the medical malpractice claim of Elizabeth Jones.


         I. Plaintiffs' Motion for Interest on Judgment

         Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a motion may be filed to alter or amend a judgment within 28 days after the entry of the judgment. "While the Rule itself provides no standard for when a district court may grant such a motion, courts interpreting Rule 59(e) have recognized three grounds for amending an earlier judgment: (1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." Hutchinson v. Staton, 994 F.2d 1076, 1081 (4th Cir. 1993). "Thus, Rule 59(e), in essence, gives the district court a chance to correct its own mistake if it believes one has been made." Zinkand v. Brown, 478 F.3d 634, 637 (4th Cir. 2007).

         Under North Carolina law, interest on compensatory damages accrues from the date the action is filed, interest on punitive damages accrues from the date of the judgment, and no interest accrues for costs. N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 24-5 and 24-1. In their complaint, plaintiffs requested interest on the judgment from the date this suit was instituted. However, the Court did not address such relief in its judgment, and such an omission was an inadvertent oversight. Accordingly, plaintiffs motion will be granted and the judgment will be amended to include such relief.

         II. Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on The Issue of Punitive Damages

         Defendants filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that plaintiffs failed, as a matter of law, to establish that any of the defendants could be found by a reasonable jury to be liable for punitive damages under North Carolina law. Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a party who has moved for judgment as a matter of law at trial may, within twenty-eight days of the entry of judgment, renew such motion. In deciding a Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law after trial, the Court is constrained to determine, without weighing the evidence or considering the credibility of the witnesses, whether substantial evidence supports the jury's findings. Konkel v. Bob Evans Farms, Inc., 165 F.3d 275, 279 (4th Cir. 1999). After drawing all inferences and viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the Court may grant a Rule 50 motion only if it "determines that the only conclusion a reasonable trier of fact could draw from the evidence is in favor of the moving party." Figg v. Schroeder, 312 F.3d 625, 635 (4th Cir. 2002) (quotation omitted). The question for the Court is not whether there is no evidence supporting the party against whom the motion is directed, but rather whether there is evidence upon which the jury might reasonably find a verdict for that party. See 9B C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure, § 2524 (3d ed.). In reviewing such a motion, the Court must consider the substantive evidentiary burden of . proof that would apply at trial to the nonmovant's claims. Id.

         This is a diversity action, and so state law governs the issue of punitive damages. Browning-Ferris Indus. of Vt., Inc., v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257, 278 (1989) ("In a diversity action, or in any other lawsuit where state law provides the basis of the decision, the propriety of an award of punitive damages for the conduct in question, and the factors the jury may consider in determining their amount, are questions of state law."). Thus, the Court must look to North Carolina law to determine the factors giving rise to an award of punitive damages and the amount that may be awarded. Defender Indus., Inc., v. Nw. Mut. Life Ins. Co., 938 F.2d 502, 504-05 (4th Cir. 1991) ("In a diversity case, state substantive law governs the circumstances justifying an award and the amount of punitive damages[.]").

         Under North Carolina law, punitive damages are distinct from and serve a different purpose than compensatory damages. "Punitive damages are never awarded as compensation. They are awarded above and beyond actual damages, as a punishment for the defendant's intentional wrong." Overnite Transp. Co. v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 125 S.E.2d 277, 286 ( N.C. 1962). "Punitive damages may be awarded, in an appropriate case ... to punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-1; see also Rhyne v. K-Mart Corp., 594 S.E.2d 1, 7 ( N.C. 2004). "Punitive damages are not awarded merely because of a personal injury inflicted, nor are they measured by the extent of the injury. They are awarded because of the outrageous nature of the wrongdoer's conduct." Meeks v. Crawford, 160 N.C.App. 708 (2003) (unpublished).

         Defendants contend that judgment as a matter of law in their favor is merited on plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages because plaintiffs failed to prove the type of conduct necessary to recover punitive damages. In order to prevail on a claim for punitive damages, a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that one or more of the following aggravating factors was present and proximately caused the injury at issue: (1) fraud, (2) malice, or (3) willful or wanton conduct. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-15. "Malice" is defined by statute as "a sense of personal ill will toward the claimant that activated or incited the defendant to perform the act or undertake the conduct that result in harm to the claimant." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-5(5). "Willful or wanton conduct" is defined as "the conscious and intentional disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others, which the defendant knows or should know is reasonably likely to result in injury, damage, or other harm." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-5(7). The statute specifically provides that "willful or wanton conduct" means more than gross negligence. Id. "An act is willful when there is deliberate purpose not to discharge a duty, assumed by contract or imposed by law, necessary for the safety of the person or property of another." Lashlee v. White ...

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