The Iowa Supreme Court grapples with alleged jury confusion with instructions in a comparative fault case, but declines to order a new trial

by Rox Laird | March 6, 2019

Jurors in a Pottawattamie County medical malpractice trial submitted a question to the court during jury deliberations about the meaning of instructions given to them by the trial judge for apportioning fault to a settled party, but the judge did not commit a prejudicial error by failing to clarify his instructions, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously March 1.

The appellant, a 33-year-old resident of a halfway house following her release from prison, sued the halfway house and an emergency room doctor for failing to immediately diagnose her symptoms of a stroke, resulting in her partial paralysis.

The woman settled with the halfway house prior to the malpractice trial, which was then narrowed to the question of the emergency room doctor’s liability. Based on Iowa’s comparative fault statute, the judge in the verdict form asked the jurors to decide if there was any fault by either the doctor or the halfway house and, if so, what percentage to allocate to either one.

After the jurors began deliberating, the foreperson sent out a note to the judge asking if they attribute 25 percent fault to the doctor and 75 to the halfway house, would the plaintiff only get 25 percent since the halfway house had been released? The jury also asked how the halfway-house was still in the lawsuit if they had been released? The judge consulted with the attorneys, and plaintiff’s counsel urged the judge to answer “yes” to the first question and to refer back to the instruction on the second question, while defense counsel favored referring jurors back to the original instructions for both questions.

The judge chose the latter option, and the jury subsequently returned a unanimous verdict that the doctor was not negligent, and it declined to address any liability for the halfway house.

The judge denied a motion for a new trial by the plaintiffs, who argued the jurors were “clearly confused,” which formed the basis for this appeal.

In its decision written by Justice Edward Mansfield, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed the trial judge should have provided clarity to the jury on apportioning fault to a settling party, but found the error was not prejudicial. “Although the District Court could have — and probably should have — given an affirmative answer to the first question, we are unable to find any prejudice on this record,” Justice Mansfield wrote. (The Court also noted that it was hampered in finding potential prejudice in this case because the plaintiff did not provide the Court with a transcript of any portion of the trial.)

Mansfield cited the Iowa Code, which provides that “If the claim is tried to a jury, the court shall give instructions and permit evidence and argument with respect to the effects of the answers to be returned to the interrogatories submitted under this section.” He emphasized the word “effects.”

Likewise, Mansfield wrote, “the Iowa State Bar Association’s model civil jury instructions state that when there is a settling party, the jury should be told, ‘If you assign a percentage of fault to the settling party, I will reduce the amount of plaintiff’s recovery by that percentage.’ ”

Mansfield wrote that while answering “yes” to the effect of allocating 25 percent of fault to the doctor “would have closed a gap in the original instructions,” the Court has never reversed a jury verdict “simply because the jury was not told the effect of the allocation they were asked to make between a nonsettling defendant and a settling one.”

He added: “Normally, juries answering special verdicts are not told of the consequences of those answers: we trust jurors to find the facts impartially regardless of where those findings may lead.”

In the end, the Court was unable to find prejudice in the trial judge’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, in part because the jury found unanimously that the doctor was not negligent. The trial judge reasoned that the jurors’ questions were motivated by an effort to understand the verdict form, not to find a way to award damages to the plaintiff, as her lawyer had argued.

“On the face of it, the District Court’s reasoning is more logical” than the plaintiff’s, Mansfield wrote. “The District Court’s hypothesis can be reconciled with the actual jury verdict.” If the jury wanted to award some amount of money to the plaintiff against the doctor, “the jury surely knew that entering a finding that [the doctor] was not negligent and stopping there was not the way to do it.”

Mansfield’s decision was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Thomas Waterman. Justice Susan Christensen did not take part in the case.


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