Jury instruction error harmless in personal injury case, COA rules

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a jury’s judgment for a woman whose vehicle rear-ended another, despite the appellate panel’s acknowledgement that the trial court failed to properly instruct the jury.

While waiting to turn left as oncoming traffic cleared, Latoya Torrence was rear-ended by Courtney Gamble, leaving both women’s vehicles substantially damaged and Torrence injured.

Torrence sued, alleging negligence and seeking property damages, as well as damages for lost wages and medical expenses. But Gamble denied liability for the accident and asserted a comparative fault defense.

A Clark Circuit jury was presented with numerous instructions and jury verdict forms, including a general verdict form offered by Gamble Torrence objected to. The form — which stated that the jury would “decide in favor of the Defendant, [Gamble], and against the Plaintiff, [Torrence]” and that no further deliberation would be necessary — was based on Indiana Model Civil Jury Instruction Verdict Form 5017.

The jury was not instructed on that form’s applicability, and the trial court therefore allowed the parties to address the use of the form in closing argument. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in Gamble’s favor using that form.

On appeal, Torrence argued that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing the jury to consider a general verdict form in violation of the Comparative Fault Act. Specifically, she alleged that by giving the general instruction and the general form, the trial court violated Indiana Code section 34-51-2- 7(b).

Torrence further noted that the Comparative Fault Act does not allow the jury to enter a general verdict in favor of a defendant without first determining and apportioning fault. The Indiana Court of Appeals also found issue with the trial court’s action of leaving the respective parties to educate the jury on the general form.

“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,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the court.

“However, to receive a new trial, Torrence must show a reasonable probability that her substantial rights have been adversely affected by the undue focus on Verdict Form D,” the panel continued.

It ultimately concluded that her rights were not adversely affected in Latoya Torrence v. Courtney Gamble, 18A-CT-2695, based on contradictory evidence presented by both parties.

“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,” Riley concluded. “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.”

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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