On December 11, 2015 the Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision, Kevin Bryant v. Lori Lynn Parr, in which it ruled that $1 was insufficient compensation for pain and suffering in a personal injury case arising out of a car accident. In Bryant, the jury awarded the plaintiff $17,000 in compensatory damages for past medical expenses, but only $1 for pain and suffering. Although a car accident case, the legal principles discussed in Bryant also have application to drunk driving accidents, trucking accidents, pedestrian accidents, bicycle accidents, railroad accidents, motorcycle accidents, boating accidents, products liability cases, fire and explosion cases, premises liability cases, dog bite cases, and nursing home injury cases.
The court noted that a dollar constitutes nominal damages. Generally, nominal damages are not recoverable in cases in which damages are an element of the cause of action. Because damages are an element of a negligence or comparative fault action, nominal damages should not be awarded. If a party has suffered personal injury as a result of another’s negligence or fault, the injured party is entitled to actual or substantial damages, not nominal damages. Nominal damages are allowed, not as an equivalent for the wrong, but in recognition of a technical injury and by way of declaring a right and are not the same as damages small in amount.
In the court's view, "[i]t is illogical to award past and future medical expense incurred to relieve headache, neck and back pain and then allow nothing for such physical and mental pain and suffering. Having determined that these medical expenses were recoverable, there seems no way for the jury to disallow recovery for the appellant’s pain and suffering for the same injuries. Although the award may be adequate, a special verdict award of nothing for pain and suffering is inconsistent and unsupported by evidence."
On the other hand, an award for pain and suffering but $0 for medical expenses is considered a consistent verdict and will be upheld. That's because it's possible for a jury to logically conclude that a person was hurt because of an accident but that the person didn't require medical care as a result. It follows that the jury could permissibly award damages for pain and suffering but not for medical expenses.
On the specific facts of the Bryant case, the court decided that $1 for pain and suffering was inconsistent and improper after the jury decided that Bryant should recover $17,000 in lost wages plus lost wages for work missed because of the car accident. The jury could have found that Bryant suffered only minimal injuries in the accident and exaggerated his complaints of pain to his doctors. The $17,000 in medical expenses the jury awarded for for many months of post-accident medical treatment, specifically pain. The jury's award of lost wages also indicated that it believed that Bryant's injuries were severe and painful enough that he should be compensated for missing work as a result. Those decisions by the jury were inconsistent with its verdict of only $1 for pain and suffering. Bryant would thus receive a new trial for a proper determination of his damages.