This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C9-99-1936

 

David J. Robak,

Respondent,

 

vs.

 

Renee M. Nathe, Special Administrator

of the Estate of James Hromatka,

Appellant.

 

Filed August 15, 2000

Affirmed

Randall, Judge

 

Benton County District Court

File No. C1-98-985

 

 

Michael C. Rajkowski, William V. Faerber, Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., 400 First Street South, P.O. Box 1008, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for respondent)

 

Kevin F. Gray, Beth S. Thompson, Rajkowski Hansmeier, Ltd., 11 Seventh Avenue North, P.O. Box 1433, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for appellant)

 

 

Considered and decided by Toussaint, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Parker, Judge.*


U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N

RANDALL, Judge

A jury awarded respondent damages for injuries he received in a motor vehicle accident, and the district court denied appellant's motion for a new trial. On appeal, appellant contends that the district court erred when it excluded information about respondent's receipt of social security disability benefits and asserts that he was prejudiced by this error. Appellant also alleges that (a) the evidence does not support the verdict awarding respondent future wage losses and medical/chiropractic expenses and (b) respondent's testimony misled the jury. We affirm.

FACTS

In 1997, respondent David Robak commenced this action against the estate of James Hromatka for injuries Robak sustained on September 7, 1993, in a motor vehicle accident.[1] Robak was unloading hogs from the back of his pickup truck onto the scale at a hog auction when Hromatka's unoccupied vehicle slipped out of park and rolled into Robak's truck. Robak was pinned between the scale and his truck, injuring his lower back and right leg.

Before trial, Robak brought a motion in limine, seeking to exclude evidence that he was receiving social security disability benefits. In 1970, Robak received serious injuries in a rock-slide accident. His left leg and arm were crushed and he spent more than two months in the hospital recuperating. In 1997, Robak made a claim for social security disability benefits based on the physical impairments he suffered in the 1970 accident. An administrative law judge (ALJ) determined that Robak was entitled to social security disability benefits beginning September 1, 1992.

Robak's motion in limine was heard in chambers and off the record. The district court granted the motion. But concerned that the jury could possibly award Robak an amount in excess of residual earning capacity after receipt of social security disability benefits, the district court proposed a modified special-verdict form to address this possibility. Based on the court's proposal, the parties agreed, without objection, to a special-verdict form that asked the jury to specify the annual amount and number of years for any future wage loss claim, instead of making a lump-sum award. Thereafter, the court would calculate any necessary offset for the social security benefits received by Robak.

At trial, appellant admitted liability. Robak testified that before the 1993 accident, he was able to feed his livestock, drive a tractor, and do some field work. But because of the injuries he sustained in the 1970 rock-slide accident, Robak required help for any heavy lifting. Robak testified that after the accident, he was unable to do much of the work he had been doing on the farm. He began selling off his farming operation in the fall of 1994 and continued to do so until 1997. As a result, Robak claimed a yearly out-of-pocket loss of approximately $4,000 to $5,000.

Robak also told the jury that he was treating with Dr. David Anderson at Park Chiropractic for his injuries. Robak testified that while the treatments do not eliminate the pain, they provide temporary relief. Dr. Anderson testified that Robak's lower-back and leg pain were the result of and related to the 1993 accident. He opined that Robak's injuries were permanent and would require future chiropractic care in order for Robak to maintain his current condition.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Robak, awarding total damages of $108,416. That award included $18,000 for future medical expenses and $60,000 for future wage loss. Appellant moved for a new trial, arguing that the district court improperly excluded evidence of Robak's social security disability benefits and that the evidence did not support the jury's verdict. The district court denied the motion, ruling that (a) appellant waived any objection to the exclusion of evidence of Robak's social security disability benefits and (b) pursuant to rule 403 of the Minnesota Rules of Evidence, the introduction of evidence of Robak's social security disability benefits would have caused confusion of the issues and misled the jury. The court also ruled that the evidence supported the jury's verdict. This appeal follows.

D E C I S I O N

When the district court exercises its discretion in deciding whether to grant a new trial, that decision will not disturbed absent an abuse of discretion. Halla Nursery, Inc. v. Baumann-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990). On appeal from the denial of a new trial motion, the verdict will not be upset unless it is manifestly and palpably contrary to the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict. ZumBerge v. Northern States Power Co., 481 N.W.2d 103, 110 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Apr. 29, 1992).

I.

Appellant argues that she was entitled to a new trial because the district court erred, as a matter of law, in excluding evidence that Robak was receiving social security disability benefits. Appellant claims that this evidence establishes that Robak was disabled by injuries other than those allegedly caused by the September 1993 accident.

On appeal, the district court's evidentiary rulings will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of discretion. Jenson v. Touche Ross & Co., 335 N.W.2d 720, 725 (Minn. 1983). Absent some indication that the district court "exercised its discretion arbitrarily, capriciously, or contrary to legal usage," an appellate court is bound by the district court's decision. Kroning v. State Farm Auto. Ins. Co., 567 N.W.2d 42, 46 (Minn. 1997) (citation omitted). Further, a party is entitled to a new trial on the ground of improper evidentiary rulings only if the complaining party can demonstrate prejudicial error. Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 138 (Minn. 1990).

Here, the district court granted Robak's motion in limine to exclude evidence that Robak is receiving social security disability benefits. The district court stated that such the evidence would confuse, and could mislead, the jury because the determination of whether an individual is entitled to social security benefits "involve[s] a different legal standard and application of law than a common law negligence action." The court also observed that a recipient of social security disability benefits retains the ability to earn limited income without jeopardizing receipt of full disability benefits.

The crux of this appeal is that Robak cannot claim to be disabled twice. But, as the district court noted, the standard of proof for determining whether an individual is entitled to receive social security disability benefits is different from that applied in common-law negligence actions.[2] An individual may earn limited income while receiving social security disability benefits.[3]

Even if evidence is probative, the district court may exclude it "if its introduction may confuse or mislead the jury." Green v. City of Coon Rapids, 485 N.W.2d 712, 717 (Minn. App. 1992) (citation omitted), review denied (Minn. June 30, 1992); see also Minn. R. Evid. 403 (stating relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, or misleading jury). We conclude, as did the district court, that the evidence about Robak's receipt of social security disability benefits could have confused the jury. Given this danger of misuse, the district court was within its discretion and did not act arbitrarily or contrary to law in excluding this evidence.[4]

Further, excluding the evidence was not prejudicial. The 1997 decision of the ALJ details the injuries and impairments Robak suffered as a result of the 1970 rock-slide accident. While concluding that Robak is disabled for the purposes of receiving disability benefits, the ALJ did not find that Robak was unable to do light farm work. Most importantly, appellant was given a full opportunity to cross-examine Robak regarding the injuries he suffered in the 1970 rock-slide accident and apparently did so.

II.

Next, appellant claims the jury's award of future wage loss and medical/chiropractic expenses is unsupported by the evidence. On appeal, this court
will not set aside answers to special-verdict questions unless they are perverse and palpably contrary to the evidence or the evidence is so clear it leaves no room for differences among reasonable people. Jennie-O Foods, Inc. v. Safe-Glo Prods. Corp., 582 N.W.2d 576, 579 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. Oct. 20, 1998). The evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, and if the verdict can be reconciled on any theory, the verdict will not be disturbed. Id.

Here, there is enough evidence to support the jury's award of wage loss. Robak and one of his brothers testified that, despite being injured in the 1970 rock-slide accident, Robak was able to do many of the farm chores that did not require heavy lifting, including feeding livestock, field work, and cleaning the barn. Robak's brother testified that after the accident in 1993, Robak was unable to continue doing the farm chores that he had been able to do before the accident. The situation deteriorated to the point that Robak's brother told Robak to get rid of his hog operation because his brother could no longer give Robak all the help he now needed to maintain the farm. At this point, Robak started to sell off his farming operation. Robak testified that this resulted in an out-of-pocket loss of $4,000 to $5,000 per year. Robak stated further that he was 47 at the time of trial, and, but for the accident, he planned on farming until he was 62 years old. The jury awarded Robak $60,000 in future loss of wages. Acccording to the special-verdict form, this amount represented Robak's future wage loss of $4,000 per year for the next 15 years. The jury's special-verdict answer on future wage loss was not palpably contrary to the evidence.

Appellant also claims that the jury's award to Robak of $18,000 for future medical and chiropractic expenses is unsupported by the evidence. Robak testified that while the chiropractic care provided by Dr. Anderson does not eliminate his pain, the treatment does provide some temporary relief. Dr. Anderson testified it was his professional opinion that the injuries to Robak's spine were causing not only the pain in Robak's back, but also in Robak's leg. Dr. Anderson was aware of the injuries Robak suffered in the 1970 rock-slide accident, but testified that the pain Robak was currently experiencing was the result of the 1993 accident. According to Dr. Anderson, the injuries Robak suffered in the 1993 accident are permanent, and Robak will need future chiropractic care "to keep him where he's at and keep him from degenerating further." The evidence supports the jury's award of damages for future medical and chiropractic care.

III.

Lastly, appellant argues that Robak's testimony misled the jury. This argument, however, is predicated on a comparison of Robak's trial testimony with the findings made by the ALJ in awarding Robak social security disability benefits. Not only were

the ALJ's findings never offered at trial,[5] but, also, the findings did not contain any verbatim testimony by Robak. Because the decision of the ALJ was never admitted into evidence and did not contain statements by Robak, the attempted comparison is inappropriate.

Affirmed.



* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. Art. VI, 10.

[1] Hromatka is deceased. Therefore, the complaint was served on the special administrator of his estate, Renee M. Nathe.

[2] An individual is disabled for purposes of receiving social security disability benefits if, inter alia, the individual is unable "to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical * * * impairmentich." 20 C.F.R.  404.1505(a) (1999). Substantial gainful activity is defined as work done for pay or profit that "[i]nvolves doing significant and productive physical or mental duties." 20 C.F.R. 404.1510 (1999). In reviewing an ALJ's determination that a claimant is not entitled to social security disability benefits, the Eighth Circuit has applied a "substantial-evidence" standard of review. See Tang v. Apfel, 205 F.3d 1084, 1086 (8th Cir. 2000). "Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept it as adequate to support a decision." Id. (quotation omitted).

 

[3] This type of work is known as "residual functional capacity" and is "used as the basis for determining the particular types of work [an individual] may be able to do despite [his or her] impairment(s)." 20 C.F.R. 404.1545(a) (1999).

 

[4] We recognize that "payments made pursuant to the United States Social Security Act" are not a collateral source. Minn. Stat. 548.36, subd. 1(2) (1998). The district court did not decide, and the parties do not address on appeal, however, whether evidence of such payments must be excluded under 548.36, subd. 5 (1998), which states:

 

The jury shall not be informed of the existence of collateral sources or any future benefits which may or may not be payable to the plaintiff.

 

(Emphasis added.) Therefore, we will not address this issue.

[5] Robak implies on appeal that the district court excluded all evidence from the social security proceedings, including the ALJ's findings. The district court's order denying a new trial states, however, that before trial it granted Robak's motion to "exclude any and all evidence of [Robak's] social security benefits." (Emphasis added.) The court did not address whether the ALJ's findings were admissible, and appellant made no attempt to admit those findings before, or during, trial.