JORIS HAARHUIS, Administrator of the Estate of Julie Haarhuis (Deceased), Plaintiff,
EMILY CHEEK, Defendant.
in the Court of Appeals 5 April 2017.
by Defendant from judgment entered 28 April 2016 by Judge
Eric L. Levinson in Chatham County Superior Court No. 14 CVS
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
Burton, Sue & Anderson, LLP, by Walter K. Burton,
Stephanie W. Anderson, and Cam A. Bordman, for the
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.
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.
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
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
filed a motion for new trial which the trial court denied.
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.
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
Right to a Bifurcated Trial
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.
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
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.
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.").
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