Question: When A Civil Case Goes To Trial, Who Is The “13th Juror” And What Do They Do?
Answer: It Is The Trial Judge Who Must Determine Whether In The Minds Of Reasonable Jurors A Contrary Verdict Should Have Been Reached. Below is an example.
In 2010, Stewart was driving his motorcycle and noticed a pickup truck beginning to exit the corner gas station. Concerned that the truck was going to pull out in front of him, he slowed down. When the truck driver braked and acknowledged Stewart, Stewart accelerated and continued. Stewart was looking forward, and in his peripheral vision, he did not see any cars coming. Seconds later, a dog darted into the street and collided with Stewart’s motorcycle. He never saw the dog. Stewart gave conflicting testimony as to how many seconds elapsed between the time he braked for the truck and the time he hit the dog, but estimated his speed on impact as 22 to 23 miles-per-hour. He lost control of the bike, his helmet hit the pavement, and the motorcycle slid 102 feet to a stop. As a result of the crash, Stewart suffered injuries to his shoulder, collarbone, back, leg, and foot. Christopher LaRue was driving a pickup truck about 100 feet directly behind Stewart. From his vantage point, LaRue saw a dog, “running fast for a dog”, dart out from behind a small concrete wall on the right side of the road and into Stewart’s path. LaRue estimated that Stewart was traveling 20 miles-per-hour when he hit the dog. When asked whether LaRue thought Stewart could have done anything to avoid the collision, LaRue opined that “if I would have been on a motorcycle, I would have hit the dog.” Officer Peter Yorg investigated the accident and described the circumstances contributing to the crash as “the fact that the dog ran out in front of … the motorcycle and … the motorcycle … struck the dog and caused him to lose control.” Officer Yorg’s investigation did not lead him to conclude that Stewart was at fault in any way.
At the time of the crash, Nathan was inside the home he shared with his mother, Dawn. The Warricks had recently acquired 2 dogs which they kept inside the house. The Warricks did not have a fence around their property; thus, when they let the dogs outside, they restrained each dog in the backyard using a cable that attached to a yard stake on one end and the dog’s collar on the other. On the morning of the crash, Nathan let the dogs outside on their staked cables. Shortly after, Nathan heard the accident commotion outside. After discovering Dawn’s dog at the crash site, Nathan walked to the backyard where he found the escaped dog’s collar still clasped shut and attached to the staked cable; apparently, the dog had slipped the collar. At trial, Dawn testified that she had fitted a new collar on the dog one week before the accident. However, Dawn admitted that the dog, which had obviously slipped out of the collar just before the crash, was not “properly restrained” and was “at large” in the city limits, in violation of local ordinance. Stewart’s dog training expert testified that the collar was in good working order and the appropriate size for the dog. However, based on his review of the evidence, the only way the collar could come over the dog’s head was if the collar was improperly fitted. The expert also testified that the breed’s head size is so much bigger than that area in the neck where the collar should be fitted, that it would be physically impossible for the dog to pull a properly fitted collar over its head.
Stewart filed a negligence claim alleging that the Warricks were negligent in failing to restrain and supervise the dog and that their negligence was the cause of the crash and Stewart’s personal injuries. At the conclusion of a 2-day jury trial, the jury assigned 70 percent fault to Stewart and 30 percent fault to the Warricks. Because the jury found Stewart more than 50 percent at fault, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the Warricks. Stewart then filed a motion to correct error which the trial court granted setting aside the jury’s verdict as against the weight of the evidence, and granted a new trial.
On appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals first noted that one purpose of the special findings is to provide the parties and the reviewing court with the theory of the trial court’s decision. Based on the special findings, we understand the trial court’s theory to be that the weight of the evidence demanded a greater allocation of fault to the Warricks for their negligence in improperly restraining the dog than to Stewart for his driving, even though Stewart may have been distracted at some point by another potential hazard on the road. There was ample evidence presented that the Warricks negligently failed to restrain the dog and that, but for their negligence, the dog would not have been in the path of Stewart’s motorcycle in the first place. Given the strong presumption of correctness we afford the trial court’s decision, we cannot say that the court abused its discretion when it set aside a jury verdict allocating more than 50 percent fault to Stewart. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it granted Stewart’s motion to correct error, set aside the jury’s verdict as against the weight of the evidence, and ordered a new trial. 29 N.E.3d 1284