What Happens When an Iowa Jury Returns an Incomplete Verdict?
In an Iowa personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff is entitled to a trial by jury. This means the jury is charged with deciding who is legally responsible for the underlying accident. If there are multiple defendants–or if the defense maintains the plaintiff’s actions contributed to the accident–it is also up to the jury to apportion fault among all of the relevant parties.
Badly Worded Question Leads Jury to Only Decide One Defendant’s Fault
So what happens when the jury returns an incomplete verdict? Put another way, if the judge asks the jury to apportion fault among two defendants, but the jury only makes findings with respect to one of them, does that require a new trial?
The Iowa Court of Appeals recently addressed this unusual situation. In this case, Whitlow v. McConnaha, the plaintiff was a passenger on her fiancé’s motorcycle. They were driving down a two-lane highway. In front of them was a farm tractor. The tractor driver turned left into a farm lane, while the plaintiff’s fiancé tried to make a pass. Unfortunately, in doing so the motorcycle struck the tractor and seriously injured the plaintiff.
The plaintiff subsequently sued both the tractor driver and her fiancé, alleging their combined negligence caused the accident. The case was tried before a jury in early 2018. After the jury heard all of the evidence, the trial judge provided final instructions, which included a four-page verdict form.
The verdict form presented several questions for the jury to answer. The first question read as follows:
QUESTION NO. 1: Was [the tractor driver] at fault?
Answer “yes” or “no.”
[If your answer is no, do not answer any further questions and sign the verdict form. If your answer is yes, answer Question No. 2.]
The jury answered this question “no,” proceeded to skip the remaining questions, and signed the verdict form.
The problem was that Question 1 only addressed the tractor driver’s liability. Questions 3-6 addressed the comparative fault, if any, of the plaintiff’s fiancé. But the jury never answered these questions, leaving the overall verdict incomplete.
For some reason, the trial judge neither noticed the original defect in the verdict form nor caught the jury’s incomplete verdict. Several days after the trial ended, the plaintiff moved for a mistrial, or at the very least a new trial. The judge decided to grant a new trial–but only with respect to the issue of her fiancé’s liability, as the court reasoned the tractor driver had already been “exonerated of all fault” by the jury.
The Iowa Court of Appeals disagreed with this partial-retrial approach. As a general rule, the appeals court noted, when there is an incomplete verdict there is a mistrial, which means all of the relevant issues must be retried before a new jury. And while there are some scenarios where a partial retrial may be acceptable, this was not one of those cases.
The reason for this is simple: This case requires an assessment of the comparative fault of two defendants. The negligence questions “are not divisible here,” the Court of Appeals noted. And the plaintiff had a constitutional right to “one complete trial where the jury assesses the comparative fault of both drivers.”
Speak with an Iowa Personal Injury Lawyer Today
Mistakes happen, even in courtrooms. But when those mistakes affect your ability to recover damages against the people who injured you, an experienced Southeast Iowa personal injury lawyer can stand up for your rights. Contact the Noyes Law Office, P.C., today if you have been injured in an auto or motorcycle accident and need legal advice on how to proceed.