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Eckerberg v. Inter-State Studio & Publishing Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 26, 2017

Aaron D. Eckerberg Plaintiff- Appellee
Inter-State Studio & Publishing Co., also known as Inter-State Studio, Inc. Defendant-Appellant Karl Persinger Defendant

          Submitted: February 9, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Jefferson City

          Before SMITH, [1] GRUENDER, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

          SMITH, Circuit Judge.

         Aaron Eckerberg sued Inter-State Studio & Publishing Company ("Inter-State") for damages due to injuries that he sustained when an Inter-State vehicle ran a stop sign and collided with his pickup truck and trailer in Missouri. He brought suit in the Western District of Missouri pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 as a civil action between citizens of different states. After a five-day trial, the jury awarded him $4.5 million in damages. Inter-State appeals, arguing that (1) the district court[2] lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because both parties were citizens of Missouri, and in the alternative, (2) the district court abused its discretion by not remitting the damages award. We disagree and affirm the judgment of the district court.

         I. Background

         Eckerberg grew up in Platte City, Missouri. He attended the University of Central Missouri (formerly Central Missouri State University) and joined the United States Marine Corps after graduation. The Marine Corps relocated Eckerberg to Pensacola, Florida, in 1996 for aviation training. While in Florida, he opened a bank account through the Navy Federal Credit Union, registered to vote in Florida, and obtained a Florida driver's license. Under military orders, Eckerberg moved to California in 1998. Shortly after arriving at his new post, he signed a State of Legal Residence Certificate, officially declaring his domicile as Florida. Since that time, Eckerberg has been deployed overseas and assigned to posts in California, Virginia, Kansas, and North Carolina. Eckerberg eventually obtained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, serving primarily as a helicopter pilot. Through all these transitions, Eckerberg has maintained his bank account, voter registration, tax-filing status, and driver's license in Florida.

         In 2006, Eckerberg attended the United States Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. For this assignment, he and his wife purchased a home in Platte City, Missouri, where they lived until Eckerberg was reassigned in 2007. The couple continues to own this residence as a rental property. In 2011, Eckerberg was stationed in Virginia but did not change his driver's license, voting records, or domicile declaration from Florida. In November 2013, Eckerberg returned to CGSC for a three-year term as a college instructor. At that time, his family rented a home in Kearney, Missouri, preferring Kearney's public schools to those in Kansas. When he arrived in the state, he transferred title of his two vehicles to Missouri and obtained Missouri licenses for hunting, fishing, and carrying a firearm.

         The accident with Inter-State's vehicle occurred just a few months later in February 2014. Eckerberg suffered a compression fracture in his spine and a traumatic brain injury. The accident resulted in $59, 000 in direct medical expenses. In July 2014, Eckerberg sued Inter-State in Missouri federal court, alleging diversity jurisdiction as a citizen of Florida against a Missouri corporation with its principal place of business in Missouri. Inter-State admitted liability, but the parties tried Eckerberg's damages claim.

         At trial, various medical professionals testified about Eckerberg's injuries. Eckerberg's wife, sister, stepbrother, and a longtime friend testified about the continued physical, emotional, and cognitive effects of the accident. Eckerberg too testified about his injuries and his accident-related memory problems, anxiety, and nightmares. His testimony included descriptions of the continued emotional and psychological effects that his injuries have caused, including effects upon his family:

[M]y kids now when I walk into a room, they're-it's more inquisitive, like, which dad is showing up today from work? You know, is it happy dad or is it mad dad? So I'm working through that. But it's hard to see that look in your kids' face[s] and think, you know where have I gone wrong? Where did this come from?

         Economist John Ward testified that Eckerberg's potential loss of earnings ranged from $1.3 to $3.3 million because of the accident. The jury returned a verdict of $4.5 million as fair and just compensation "for any damages [they] believe[d] he sustained and is reasonably certain to sustain in the future as a direct result of the occurrence mentioned in the evidence."

         After trial, Inter-State moved to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The district court held an evidentiary hearing at which both parties presented evidence regarding Eckerberg's domicile. The district court determined that Eckerberg was a domiciliary of Florida for diversity jurisdiction purposes. The court based its determination on Eckerberg's property ownership, voting records, tax forms, and licenses mentioned above. The court also found other factors relevant to the inquiry, including "the Fitness Reports[3] admitted into evidence at the evidentiary hearing, Plaintiff's wife's medical condition, the economic advantages of living in Florida generally, . . . and Plaintiff's own testimony, which included numerous reasons for his intention to return to the state of Florida at the conclusion of his military service." On appeal, Inter-State points to property that Eckerberg purchased after the accident but before filing suit-approximately 40 acres in Clay County, Missouri-to demonstrate Eckerberg's objective intent to make Missouri his domicile.[4] This property contained an "unlivable" farmhouse, a detached garage, and a pond.

         Inter-State also moved for remittitur, which the district court denied. In addition to the economic damages, the district court found that the evidence on Eckerberg's non-economic damages, like "permanent pain, cognitive deficits, strained relationship with wife and children, and loss of life goals including moving up the ranks in the Marines, " supported the jury's verdict as fair and reasonable. The court concluded that "[t]he damage award ...

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