Should a New Trial Be Granted When There Is Substantial Confusion Among the Jurors ?
In Cortes v. Edoo, 228 A.D.2d 463, 644 N.Y.S.2d 289 (2nd Dept. 1996) the Appellate Division Second Department was faced with facts very similar to the ones presented in this case.
Cortes involved a car accident case in which the plaintiff-passenger sued the two drivers of the vehicles involved in the accident.
The jury found that both drivers were negligent but found that the negligence of the first driver was a substantial factor in causing the accident while the negligence of the second driver was not.
Nevertheless, the jury apportioned 2% of liability to the second driver.
The trial court, realizing that the jury's verdict was inconsistent, informed the jury that there was a problem with question number 5, gave the jury a new verdict sheet with more detailed written instructions, did not give any additional instructions to the jury and asked them to complete the new verdict sheet.
The jury then returned a second verdict finding that both drivers were negligent, that their negligence was a substantial factor in causing the accident, and apportioned fault in the same percentages as on the first verdict sheet.
The second driver moved to set aside the verdict but the trial court denied her motion.
In a similar case, Roberts v. County of Westchester, supra, the jury had found that both sides were negligent but that their negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the accident.
Nevertheless, the jury apportioned fault to both parties.
The court denied the plaintiff's request to reinstruct the jury and instead questioned the jury about their true intentions.
In response to the court's questioning, the foreperson stated that she did not believe that defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the accident.
The jury was allowed then to reconsider its answers and it rendered a second verdict, again apportioning liability among both parties but in different percentages as on the first verdict.
The Second Department reversed the trial court's denial of the plaintiffs motion to set aside the verdict holding that the jury was confused during deliberations and in reaching the verdict.
The Court noted that even after reconsideration, the second verdict remained inconsistent and was also inconsistent with the foreperson's comment to the court.
The Court stated that "it was clear that the jury was confused as to the meaning of the phrase substantial factor". Id at 216.
Similarly, in Clarke v. Order of the Sisters of St. Dominic, 273 A.D.2d 431, 710 N.Y.S.2d 108 (2nd Dept. 2000), the Second Department again reversed a trial court's denial of a motion to set aside a verdict that found that defendant's negligence was not a proximate cause of the accident but apportioned liability to her. the Court stated that the jurors had expressed difficulty with the concept of proximate cause and held that where the record indicates substantial confusion among the jurors, a new trial should be granted.
Finally, in DePasquale v. Morbark Industries. Inc., 254 A.D.2d 450, 678 N.Y.S.2d 777 (2nd Dept. 1998), the Court held that a new trial was the "appropriate remedy" where the jury's special verdict was internally inconsistent and where notes from the jury during its deliberations "evidenced persistent confusion on the issue of causation". Id at 450.