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Jury Confusion About Verdict Form Costs Plaintiff Over $200,000 in Damages

Earlier this month the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled (via Deliberations) in an interesting case that involved a jury deciding that a plaintiff should be awarded $336,300 in damages, but failing to adequately communicate that to the court because of confusion about how the verdict form worked. As a result, the plaintiff ended up being awarded just $128,712.

According to an affidavit filed by one of the jurors after the trial, the jury unanimously agreed that the plaintiff, Martha Sienkowski, should be awarded $336,300 but "we had trouble trying to figure out the verdict form, and sent a note through the bailiff to that effect seeking further instructions." When no help was provided by the court, the jury took a shot at completing the verdict form, as follows:

We, the Jury, find for the Plaintiff, [Sienkowski], and we assess the percentages of fault as follows:

Plaintiff, [Sienkowski] 38%
Defendant, [Verschuure] 62%
TOTAL 100%

We further find that the total amount of damages which the Plaintiff, [Sienkowski], is entitled to recover, disregarding fault, is the sum of $207,600.  (Enter this amount below as Total Damages.)

We, the Jury, now find for the Plaintiff, [Sienkowski], and find against the Defendant, [Verschuure], in the sum of:

Total Damages $207,600
[Verschuure's] percentage of fault  x 62%
[Sienkowski's] Verdict Amount = $336,300.

One of the jurors later explained in an affidavit that the jury erroneously believed that Sienkowski would receive the sum of (1) $207,600 and (2) $207,600 multiplied by 62 percent, which would equal the $336,300 it intended to award.

Presented with this verdict form following the trial, the court observed that the Verdict Amount ($336,300) did not equal $207,600 multiplied by 62 percent, and asked the jury to reconsider its computations. The jury then compounded the problem by "correcting" the error by striking "$336,300" and replacing it with "$128,712." At this point it appears that everyone in the courthouse -- particularly the plaintiff and the jurors -- stopped paying attention. Counsel for both parties declined an offer to poll the jury, and both parties replied negatively when asked by the trial court if there was "any reason that this should not be entered as a verdict and a judgment at this time."

After the trial, however, one of the jurors approached plaintiffs counsel in the parking lot and told him "this is b__ s__. All of us wanted Ms. Sienkowski to get $336,300." Sienkowski's motion to vacate the judgment and for a new trial based on this information was denied, leading to an appeal to the Court of Appeals of Indiana.

The appeals court rejected Sienkowski's argument, holding that under Indiana law a party cannot attack the validity of a verdict by juror testimony about jury deliberations unless it relates to (1) drug or alcohol use by any juror, (2) the question of whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention or (3) whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror. As such, the court held that

When one disputes the information written on the verdict form, one is in effect contending that the verdict is wrong, which  amounts to a direct attack  on the "validity" of the verdict.  Asking the jurors during a post-trial hearing whether the amount written on Verdict Form B represents their agreement reached during deliberations directly impeaches the verdict.

Bottom line: Sienkowski is stuck with $128,712, not the $336,300 the jury says it wanted to award her.

Posted by Bruce Carton on September 23, 2011 at 12:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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