COA reverses mistrial, reinstates jury verdict against YMCA in personal injury case

The Court of Appeals of Indiana has reversed the grant of a new trial in a personal injury case involving a local YMCA and has reinstated a jury verdict against the YMCA after it determined the trial court abused its discretion.

Jacqueline Mastellone was returning to the Arthur Jordan Branch YMCA locker room in Indianapolis after finishing an adult swim class in May 2019 when she slipped and fell over a portion of the floor that did not have a slip-resistant mat. The fall dislocated and fractured her left shoulder, requiring a shoulder replacement.

As part of a facilities upgrade months later, the YMCA replaced the flooring where Mastellone fell. Then, roughly a year after her fall, Mastellone sued the YMCA seeking damages for her injuries.

During a jury trial, the YMCA twice moved for mistrial — first based on an overruled objection to testimony that the floor was replaced after Mastellone’s fall, and then when defense counsel learned after the jury reached its verdict that an exhibit inadvertently was not sent to the jury room during deliberations.

The Marion Superior Court denied both motions.

The jury returned a plaintiff’s verdict for $850,000 in total damages, with 60% of the fault allocated to the YMCA and 40% to Mastellone. After reducing the recoverable damages based on Mastellone’s fault, the YMCA’s liability was $510,000.

Immediately after reading the verdict and polling the jurors, the trial court stated it would “enter judgment on that verdict.”

However, three days later, the trial court ordered a new trial through a short order stating it had sua sponte reconsidered a mistrial motion, without specifying which of the two mistrial motions it was reconsidering and without explaining why a mistrial was warranted.

Upon review, the Court of Appeals determined the trial court abused its discretion when it set aside the jury verdict and ordered a new trial, so it reversed and directed the trial court on remand to reinstate the jury’s verdict.

“Here, the trial court’s Order Reconsidering Motion for Mistrial is, in substance, an order on a sua sponte Trial Rule 59 motion to correct error, but it does not provide any specificity as to why the court was setting aside the verdict,” Judge Derek Molter wrote for the COA. “The order does not even specify which mistrial motion it was reconsidering and granting, and it does not provide any reasoning.

“… Further, Trial Rule 59(J) provides that the trial court, ‘if it determines that prejudicial or harmful error has been committed, shall take such action as will cure the error, including’ granting a new trial or altering, amending, modifying, or correcting the judgment,” Molter continued. “However, if it grants corrective relief, the trial court ‘shall [then] specify the general reasons therefor.’ Ind. Trial Rule 59(J).

“The trial court failed to comply with this portion of Trial Rule 59 too by not identifying which mistrial motion it was reconsidering and not providing any reasons for granting the unspecified motion and ordering a new trial.”

The YMCA cross-appealed the trial court’s denial of its mistrial motions, and it challenged the jury’s verdict as excessive. Concluding there wasn’t an abuse of discretion, and the jury’s award was not excessive, the COA affirmed on those issues.

The case is Jacqueline Mastellone v. Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis d/b/a Arthur Jordan Branch, YMCA, 21A-CT-1720.

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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