Florida High Court to Decide If Party Must Object to a Fundamentally Inconsistent Verdict to Preserve Issue


We, the jury, return the following verdict:
1. Did Defendants place the product 
    on the market with a design defect,
    which was a legal cause of the
    decedent’s death?
    YES _______ NO X
2.  Was there negligence on the part of
     Defendants which was a legal cause of
     decedent’s death?
     YES X NO ________

The Florida Supreme Court has accepted review of a Third District case involving whether a party waives a challenge to a fundamentally inconsistent verdict by failing to object before the jury is discharged.  See Coba v. Tricam Indus., Inc., No. SC12-2624. The Third District decided that a waiver does not occur under these circumstances.  To view the Third District’s opinion, click here.

After Robert Coba, a civil engineer, died from a falling from a ladder, his estate sued Tricam, the ladder manufacturer, and Home Depot, the seller, for strict liability and negligence.  The verdict form contained the following two interrogatories:

(1) Did Defendants, Tricam Industries and/or Home Depot, place the ladder on the market with a design defect, which was a legal cause of Roberto Coba’s death?

(2) Was there negligence on the part of Defendants, Tricam Industries and/or Home Depot, which was a legal cause of Roberto Coba’s death?

Because plaintiff’s products liability theory at trial was based on a design defect only, the jury inconsistently found that there was no design defect, but that the defendants’ negligence was the legal cause of the Coba’s death.  After the jury was discharged, defendants moved to set aside the verdict, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the jury’s negligence finding. The trial court denied the motion.

On appeal, the Third District found that the trial court erred in denying defendants’ motion to set aside the verdict in accordance with their motion for directed verdict. The court acknowledged that normally, a party would have waived their objection to a purportedly inconsistent verdict if they failed to object before the jury was discharged. The court, however, held that an exception to this rule exists where the inconsistency “is of a fundamental nature.”

The court relied on the Fourth District’s 2004 opinion in Nissan Motor Co. v. Alvarez and the Fifth District’s 1985 decision in American Catamaran Racing Ass’n v. McCollister—both factually similar cases where the jury was presented with a similar verdict form. In both decisions, the district courts considered the fact that the only evidence of negligence that had been introduced related to the alleged design defect. Because both juries found that there was no defect, the Fourth and Fifth Districts held that a concurrent finding of negligence could not be sustained. The Third District adopted the reasoning in these cases to hold that a party does not have to object to such a fundamentally inconsistent verdict.

The court also stated there was no need to remand for a new trial because the jury had already decided on the only evidence that had been presented—specifically, the alleged design defect. Because no other evidence had been introduced to support any other cause of action, the Third District held that no issue remained to be resolved.

Senior Judge Schwartz dissented in part, reasoning that defendants had waived their right to complain of an inconsistent verdict because they failed to request that the inconsistency be resolved after the verdict was returned. Judge Schwartz further explained that even if this were not the case, he believed that the appropriate remedy is to grant a new trial so that a jury—not the court—can resolve the inconsistency.

This article will be updated once the Florida Supreme Court decides the case.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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