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$12.8M verdict against winery affirmed on appeal despite expert dispute

Scott Lauck//October 13, 2022

$12.8M verdict against winery affirmed on appeal despite expert dispute

Scott Lauck//October 13, 2022

The Court of Appeals Southern District on Sept. 30 affirmed a $12.8 million judgment for an Australian couple injured in a crash with a well-known southern Missouri winery’s truck.

Phelps County jurors awarded Daniel and Tanya Woodgate $14.2 million but reduced the husband’s portion of the award due to his role in the crash. The initial verdict was the ninth largest plaintiffs’ win of 2021, as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Media.

The Woodgates were part of a group of 16 Australians on a guided motorcycle tour of Route 66 in 2018. While driving near the St. James Winery, a pickup truck operated by a winery employee made a left turn in front of them. Daniel Woodgate suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in the resulting crash, while Tanya Woodgate suffered minor injuries.

Shortly before trial, the plaintiffs’ counsel learned for the first time that a defense expert planned to testify that Woodgate’s post-crash intelligence indicated he had made a significant recovery. The opinion was based on information that Woodgate’s treating neuropsychologist, who is based in Australia, had provided.

The neuropsychologist disagreed with that assessment, but delays in sharing the data between continents and further delays in getting ahold of the doctor in Australia required the newly-discovered issue to be resolved mid-trial. After briefing, arguments and a pause in the jury trial, Judge William Hickle allowed a portion of the Australian doctor’s video deposition to be played to the jury as rebuttal evidence.

On appeal, attorneys for the winery argued that it was unfair to add the witness at the last minute. But Chief Judge Jack Goodman wrote that Hickle’s handling of the dispute “indicates thoughtful reflection on a fair resolution of the issue, not arbitrariness or a lack of careful, deliberate consideration.”

The defendants also argued that the plaintiffs had injected the issue of the winery’s insurance coverage into the trial when they said there was no evidence that the family-owned winery would “pay one cent for any judgment.”

Goodman said the brief remark didn’t tell jurors anything they didn’t already know and didn’t warrant a new trial.

“Although a party may not flaunt insurance coverage in the jury’s face, a brief, retaliatory argument is not necessarily out of order,” Goodman wrote. Judges Jeffrey W. Bates and Don E. Burrell concurred.

The case is Woodgate v. St. James Winery Inc., SD37181.

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