Occasionally, a jury will render an inconsistent verdict, such as finding no causation as gainst one defendant, yet assigning a percentage of fault or liability to that defendant. In cases of comparative liability, the other defendants will typically attempt to dismiss the inconsistency with a variety of strained explanations and theories of what the jury intended, but here are a few cases which rejected such efforts to know th emind of the jury. In Richard v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 853 F.2d 1258, 1260 (5th Cir. 1988), for example, the court found:
Courts are obligated to reconcile a jury’s answers when possible. White v. Grinfas, 809 F.2d 1157, 1161 (5th Cir.1987). Predicated on this fundamental rule, Firestone labors to explain how the jury’s first answer to interrogatory 1(b) finding no causation between the defect and Richard’s injury does not contradict the jury’s response to Interrogatory 4, in which it assigned ten percent of the fault for Richard’s injury to Firestone. We are persuaded that the district court was entitled to find these answers inconsistent.
Relying on Richard, the court in Carr v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 312 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2002), first noted that the trial court “so actively reconstructed the jury verdict so as to move beyond merely ‘validating the jury’s verdict.’” 312 F.3d at 672. Reconstructing the jury’s verdict is what the defendants here want this court to do.
The Carr court then held: “it appears that the magistrate judge decided the causation question according to his own assessment of the evidence, which is tantamount to a bench trial in violation of Carr’s right under the Seventh Amendment to a trial by jury.” 312 F.3d at 675. The Carr court concluded: “the trial court abused its discretion in utilizing the jury’s response to the causation interrogatory as grounds for denying Carr’s motion for new trial.” Id.
Other courts concur. In a case from the Eighth Circuit, Karl v. Burlington N. R. Co., the court rejected arguments echoed by many defendants :
[Defendant] claims that upon close scrutiny of the interrogatories, once the jury found that [its] negligence was not a proximate cause of the collision in Part 2, the jury’s answer to Part 5 in assessing the percentage of fault attributable to each party . . . became surplusage and should have been disregarded. We are not persuaded. The jury’s finding in Part 2 that [defendant’s] negligence was not the proximate cause of Karl’s injury is directly at odds with its determination in Part 5 that [defendant’s] negligence was 25 percent of the proximate cause of Karl’s injuries. This was a logical inconsistency, and any attempt by the court to reconcile it would have required the court to speculate as to what the jury intended, and replace the jury’s judgment with its own.
880 F.2d 68, 73 (8th Cir. 1989). See also 9B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2510 (3d ed. 2008)(“If the jury’s answers are inconsistent with each other even when the presiding judge views them in the most generous way to avoid such a conclusion, a new trial under Rule 59(a) ordinarily is the proper pathway for the trial judge to follow and may be the required course....”).
State courts are the same page. In Westfall by Terwilliger v. Kottke, 328 N.W.2d 481, 485 (1983), for example. the court addressed the following scenario:
[plaintiff’s] attorney moved for a new trial . . . because the verdict was perverse and inconsistent in respect to finding there was no causal negligence on [defendant] and then attributing 10 percent of the negligence to him. The trial judge acknowledged that there were errors in the course of the trial but ruled that they were not prejudicial. He amended the admittedly inconsistent verdict by changing the jury’s answer in respect to [defendant’s] negligence being causal from “no” to “yes” and permitted the jury’s apportionment to stand – 90 percent negligence on the part of the plaintiff . . . and 10 percent on defendant.
The Supreme Court of Wisconsin would have none of it: “we conclude and hold that the inconsistency on the face of the verdict was irreconcilable, that having submitted the question of negligence in respect to both parties to the jury, it was inappropriate as a matter of hindsight to resolve the question of negligence or of cause in respect to either party as a matter of law.” 328 N.W.2d at 489. All of the above courts remanded for a new trial.