August 19, 2019

Trial Courts Should Include Instructions on All Verdict Forms Given to a Jury; Torrence v. Gamble

Category: Indianapolis Law Club | Author: | Share:

Jury instructions and verdict forms are an important part of every case. They provide guidance to parties during the pre-trial stages of litigation. And they help guide a jury to do its job properly. But a trial court may sometimes omit a jury instruction on a particular issue. The question here is whether the failure to instruct the jury on a verdict form is prejudicial error when the jury renders a defense verdict in a comparative fault case.

Torrence was stopped while waiting to make a left-hand turn when she was rearended by Gamble. Torrence was injured and filed a lawsuit against Gamble. One issue in the case was the comparative fault of the parties.

The matter was tried to a jury, and the jury was given four verdict forms. The trial court instructed the jury on Verdict Forms A, B, and C, but not on Verdict Form D. That form was a defense verdict form based on Indiana Model Civil Jury Instruction Verdict Form 5017. The parties addressed Verdict Form D in closing argument, and the jury rendered a defense verdict. Torrence appealed.

On appeal, Torrence argued that the trial court erred by giving Verdict Form D to the jury. She maintained that a defense verdict form was inconsistent with the jury’s obligation to determine the percentage of fault in a comparative fault case. The Court disagreed, noting that the comparative fault statutes “do not impose any restrictions on the trial court regarding the verbiage or specificity of the verdict forms.”

Nevertheless, the Court found that the trial court should have instructed the jury on Verdict Form D.

At the close of the evidence, the parties were given an opportunity to educate the jury on the different verdict forms during closing argument. Accordingly, Gamble’s counsel focused part of the closing argument on how to use Verdict Form D. … [T]he trial court did not provide any instructions, be it written or verbal, on Verdict Form D instead leaving it up to the parties to educate the jury. As a result, undue emphasis was placed on a single instruction. We find that the better practice would have been to have either provided the jury with Verdict Form D and written instructions—similar to the other verdict forms—or not to tender Verdict Form D at all.

But the Court did not find this error to be harmless because “the jury was presented with contradictory testimony” regarding who was at fault, Torrence had been involved in prior accidents, and Torrence had pre-existing conditions which matched those for which she received treatment after the accident.

By returning the general verdict form in favor of Gamble, the jury credited the evidence in her favor and determined that Torrence had failed to satisfy her burden of proof. It was within the province of the jury to determine and weigh the credibility of the parties and evidence admitted and reach a verdict thereon. Therefore, we find that any error in jury instruction was harmless and we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

The Court’s criticism of the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the use of a verdict form in this case should be of benefit to all litigators. You can use this case to tell a trial court that they should not just place the burden of this explanation on the parties during closing argument.

Lessons:

  1. It is error for a trial court to give a jury a verdict form without specifically instructing the jury on the use of that form.
  2. Parties should not bear the burden of explaining a verdict form to the jury.