May 2, 2017
Jury Verdict Reinstated Because Findings Of Fact Did Not Support A New Trial
We frequently advise lawyers to submit detailed proposed orders when the law requires that the order be detailed. But if that proposed order does not follow the law, then it will be reversed.
Estate of Pfafman v. Lancaster arises from the electrocution of a young man. Diehm owned a farm, and he had a pole barn built on that farm in 2004. Diehm’s brother-in-law, Pfafman, was an electrician, and agreed to help Diehm with the electrical work in the barn. At the time, Diehm did not need electricity to run to two water troughs in the barn, but had them installed anyway, in case he wanted to install de-icers in the future. Pfafman installed some wire for that purpose, but warned Diehm that it wasn’t properly protected, and that it should be protected before any electrical equipment was installed.
In 2007, Diehm installed de-icers in the water troughs, but didn’t consult with Pfafman and didn’t install proper protection. He also did not properly maintain the de-icers, pursuant to the instruction manual.
In 2010, a 16-year-old boy was visiting the farm when a thunderstorm passed through. Lightning hit a tree on the farm, and one of the heifers died. The kids went out to check it out, and the boy grabbed a gate between the kids and the heifer. The gate was electrified as a result of the storm and the improper electrical installation in the barn, and the boy was severely injured.
A lawsuit ensued, and all but Pfafman’s estate settled. At trial, Pfafman argued that he had not been negligent, and attributed fault to Diehm and the de-icer’s manufacturer as non-parties. The jury entered a defense verdict The plaintiff moved for a new trial, alleging that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Following a hearing, the trial court adopted the plaintiffs’ proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law verbatim and ordered a new trial. When doing so, it found that the plaintiff was hurt “only because” Pfafman failed to install the proper electrical protections in 2004, and that if he had done so, any negligence by the nonparties would not have caused the boy’s injuries.
This decision was reversed on appeal for two reasons. First, the trial court concluded that Pfafman’s conduct was the sole cause of the injuries, and but recognized that some fault could be allocated to non-parties. This inconsistency meant that it “did not sufficiently relate the evidence of the nonparties’ negligent conduct to the issue of comparative fault under the Act.”
Second, the trial court did not consider the possibility that the jury allocated 100% fault to one or both of the nonparties despite the lack of an intervening cause. Put simply, the fact that Pfafman was a “but-for” cause of the boy’s injuries does not mean that he was liable for those injuries.
In this case, the jury could have allocated all of the fault to Diehm or the manufacturer of the de-icers. As the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law did not consider this possibility, its findings were insufficient to support a new trial. Thus, the jury’s verdict was reinstated.
Chief Judge Vaidik disagreed with this last point. She would hold that a jury must allocate some fault to an actor who has proximately caused an injury. “[T]he fact that a jury can allocate less than 100% of the fault to an at-fault party in no way leads to the conclusion that the jury can simply choose to allocate 0% of the fault to that party.” But she felt that a jury could have found that the actions of the nonparties were superseding causes, which cut off Pfafman’s liability.
A person could proximately cause an injury, but be allocated 0% fault at trial.