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Haarhuis v. Cheek

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

September 19, 2017

JORIS HAARHUIS, Administrator of the Estate of Julie Haarhuis (Deceased), Plaintiff,
v.
EMILY CHEEK, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 5 April 2017.

         Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 28 April 2016 by Judge Eric L. Levinson in Chatham County Superior Court No. 14 CVS 684.

          Copeley Johnson & Groninger PLLC, by Leto Copeley, White & Stradley PLLC, by J. David Stradley and Robert P. Holmes, and Patterson Harkavy LLP, by Narendra K. Ghosh, for the Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Burton, Sue & Anderson, LLP, by Walter K. Burton, Stephanie W. Anderson, and Cam A. Bordman, for the Defendant-Appellant.

          DILLON, Judge.

         Emily Cheek ("Defendant") appeals from a jury verdict awarding Joris Haarhuis ("Plaintiff") compensatory and punitive damages for the wrongful death of Plaintiff's wife, and from an order by the trial court denying Defendant's motion for a new trial. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         I. Background

          Plaintiff filed this action against Defendant to recover both compensatory and punitive damages for the wrongful death of his wife, Julie Haarhuis. Before trial, the parties stipulated to a set of facts establishing that Defendant negligently caused the death of Ms. Haarhuis, in relevant part, as follows: Defendant was driving on a two-lane road at approximately 6:30 a.m. She lost control of her vehicle, crossing the opposing lane of traffic and striking Ms. Haarhuis, who was walking on the opposite shoulder of the road. As a result of the accident, Ms. Haarhuis suffered severe injuries. Several days later, Ms. Haarhuis died as a result of those injuries.

         The trial was bifurcated, with the first phase of the trial addressing compensatory damages and the second phase addressing punitive damages. During the compensatory damage phase, Plaintiff put on evidence concerning his actual damages, including evidence of the suffering his wife endured before her death. The jury awarded Plaintiff $4.25 million in compensatory damages. The trial then moved to the punitive damage phase.

         During the punitive damage phase of the trial, the jury heard evidence that Defendant was still in school and worked part time, that she had consumed alcohol in the early morning hours prior to the accident, and that she had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit approximately two hours after the accident occurred. The jury awarded Plaintiff $45, 000 in punitive damages.

         Defendant filed a motion for new trial which the trial court denied. Defendant appealed.

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Defendant makes a number of arguments concerning the conduct of the trial and the trial court's denial of her motion for a new trial. We address each argument in turn.

         When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion for a new trial, we consider whether there are grounds for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 59 (2015). Our review is "limited to the determination of whether the record affirmatively demonstrates a manifest abuse of discretion by the judge." Worthington v. Bynum, 305 N.C. 478, 482, 290 S.E.2d 599, 602 (1982). "Abuse of discretion results where the [trial] court's ruling is manifestly unsupported by reason or is so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision." State v. Hennis, 323 N.C. 279, 285, 372 S.E.2d 523, 527 (1988).

         A. Right to a Bifurcated Trial

         At trial, Defendant exercised her right to request a bifurcated trial pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30 (2015). On appeal, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's questioning of the jury during voir dire was improper and violated her "due process right" to a bifurcated trial because it involved issues that would only be relevant to Plaintiff's punitive damage claim.

          Our General Assembly has provided that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages where the defendant is not found to be liable for compensatory damages. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-15. Therefore, to ensure that a jury does not award compensatory damages based on issues relevant only to punitive damages, our General Assembly has granted a defendant the right to a bifurcated trial, which allows "issues of liability for compensatory damages and the amount of compensatory damages, if any, [to] be tried separately from the issues of liability for punitive damages and the amount of punitive damages, if any." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30. In a bifurcated trial, the plaintiff is not allowed to introduce any evidence "relating solely to punitive damages" during the compensatory damage phase. Id. In addition, the statute requires the same trier of fact that tried the issues relating to compensatory damages to try the issues relating to punitive damages. Id.

         In the present case, Defendant does not argue that Plaintiff introduced improper evidence concerning Defendant's intoxication during the compensatory phase of the trial. Rather, she argues that Plaintiff's questioning of potential jurors during voir dire regarding their general attitudes about alcohol and drunk driving - questions which were only relevant to the punitive damage phase of the trial - was inappropriate.[1]

          We acknowledge that N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30 presents a dilemma of sorts, as suggested by Defendant's argument. Specifically, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30 gives a defendant the right to a bifurcated trial in order to ensure that the jury, when considering the issue of compensatory damages, is not improperly influenced by evidence relevant only to punitive damages. However, a defendant's right to bifurcation must be weighed against a plaintiff's right to an impartial jury, which includes a plaintiff's right to question potential jurors during voir dire about issues that they may be asked to consider. See State v. Jones, 339 N.C. 114, 136, 451 S.E.2d 826, 836-37 (1994) ("The purpose of voir dire is to ferret out jurors with latent prejudices and to assure the parties' right to an impartial jury.").

          N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30 requires that the same jury try both the issues relating to compensatory damages and the issues relating to punitive damages, presumably for judicial economy reasons. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30 (providing that "[t]he same trier of fact that tried the issues relating to compensatory damages shall try the issues relating to punitive damages"). As such, in the present case, Plaintiff had the right to question potential jurors regarding their general attitudes about alcohol and drunk driving in order to determine "whether a basis for challenge for cause exist[ed]" and to allow both parties to "intelligently exercise [their] peremptory challenges." State v. Gregory, 340 N.C. 365, 388, 459 S.E.2d 638, 651 (1995). Of course, the trial judge must exercise discretion in determining the extent and type of questioning permitted in order to protect the rights of all parties. See Jones, 339 N.C. at 134, 451 S.E.2d at 835 (stating that the "form of counsel's questions" and "the manner and extent of trial ...


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