Friday, February 11, 2005

Supreme Court Opinion on Jury Instructions

On February 8, 2005, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of Capshaw v. Gulf Insurance Co., 2005 OK 5. After waiting for a green light, Capshaw entered the intersection then stopped to make a left turn. Sam Coronado's truck rear ended Capshaw's pickup. These facts were uncontested on appeal.
The issue on appeal concerned the use of a nonstandard verdict form which authorized the jury to apportion negligence between the parties in any manner so long as the aggregate sum equaled zero or one hundred percent. Although the parties tendered for the court's use in the case Oklahoma Uniform Jury Instruction (OUJI) verdict forms, none objected to the nonstandard form selected by the judge. Because the jury found none of the parties negligent, it did not award recovery to anyone.
In conversation with both parties' counsel and outside the jury's hearing, the trial court then expressed sua sponte his concern that he submitted to the jury a flawed verdict form. The form permitted a finding of no negligence by either party. However, the judge did not think the jury was free to find none of the parties negligent under the submitted theories of the case, but rather was required to find the sum of the parties' negligence to be no less than one hundred percent. Capshaw's lawyer suggested a mistrial. Coronado's counsel urged that the jury be re-instructed and afforded the opportunity to deliberate further. The judge accepted neither suggestion. He directed the verdict be read and accepted, and the jury was discharged.
Capshaw moved for a mistrial, a new trial or judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The trial judge sustained the Capshaw's motion for a new trial, and Coronado appealed.
The Court of Civil Appeals ("COCA") reversed. COCA did not address itself to whether the verdict form was tainted by fundamental error. Its opinion is bottomed on the rationale that a jury may find liability and yet limit or assess no damages. It concluded that although insofar as it dealt with the litigants' negligence the jury verdict could have been corrected, its decision not to award damages adequately serves as a resolution of the dispute and as grounds to deny the new-trial motion. Any defect in the form was not fatal, and a new trial should not have been granted. COCA reversed the trial court's order and remanded the cause with instructions to reinstate the jury's verdict that allowed no recovery.
Capshaw sought certiorari relief. On certiorari review the Supreme Court vacated the opinion of the COCA, but also reversed the order of the trail court granting a new trial, reinstated the jury verdict, and ordered judgment to be entered on the verdict. The Supreme Court held that though the COCA reviewed the issue before it as one of law and the standard to be used as that of abused discretion, it improperly injected a different standard into its opinion that embodied in the terms of 20 O.S. ยง3001.1,whose review standard deals with appellate reversal of a jury verdict by granting a new trial.
Having settled the proper review standard the Supreme Court held that Capshaw had failed timely to except to the verdict form and hence failed preserve that error for review.
Under Oklahoma law a claim that the blank verdict form is manifestly flawed may be presented absent a preserved trial-court exception. However, because the blank form used permitted a jury to find negligence, no negligence or contributory negligence in any proportion that totaled either zero or one hundred percent, the court held that there was no manifest error.

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