Indiana Court of Appeals Holds Trial Court’s Error Giving General Verdict Form in Car Accident Case Harmless

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion on whether a trial court properly instructed a jury in a rear-end automobile accident case in Indiana. In Torrence v. Gamble, 124 N.E.3d 1249, 1250 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019), the defendant rear-ended the plaintiff as the plaintiff was stopped waiting for oncoming traffic to clear before making a left-handed turn. After the collision, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant for the substantial damage to her vehicle and for personal injuries she suffered in the collision. The defendant denied liability and asserted the plaintiff had comparative fault in causing the collision, namely, that the plaintiff’s brake lights were not illuminated, and her left turn signal was off.

Under Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act, which follows a modified comparative fault approach, a personal injury claimant is barred from recovery if the claimant’s fault is greater than the fault of all persons whose fault proximately contributed to the claimant’s damages. Ind. Code § 34-51-2-6. In other words, if the fault of the claimant is greater than fifty percent (50%) of the total fault of all persons involved in the incident giving rise to the injury or death, the jury has to return a verdict in favor of the defendant or defendants. Ind. Code §§ 34-51-2-7, 34-51-2-8. If the plaintiff’s fault is not greater than fifty percent (50%) of the total fault of all persons involved in the incident giving rise to the injury or death, the jury has to return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Id.

Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act provides that a court shall instruct a jury to determine its verdict taking into account the percentage of fault of the claimant/plaintiff, of the defendant/defendants, and of any person who is a nonparty. Id. The Act further provides that the trial court shall provide the jury with forms of verdicts that require only the disclosure of the percentage of fault of each party and nonparty and the amount of the verdict against each defendant. Ind. Code § 34-51-2-11.

Here, the trial court provided four (4) jury verdict forms, three (3) of which were referenced by the court in one of the court’s final jury instructions outlining the procedure the jury was to use to determine fault and damages in accordance with Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act. One jury verdict form, “Verdict Form D,” however, was a general instruction that read, “We, the jury, decide in favor of the Defendant, and against the Plaintiff.” The trial court did not provide any instructions to the jury on this general instruction, but instead left it to the parties to address it in the parties’ closing arguments. After deliberations, the jury returned this verdict in favor of the defendant using “Verdict Form D,” and the trial court entered judgment on the verdict in favor of the defendant.

The plaintiff appealed the verdict arguing the trial court erred by giving the general instruction, “Verdict Form D,” which did not require the jury to determine and apportion the percentage of fault of the parties and any nonparties in its verdict. Under Indiana law, in evaluating the appropriateness of a jury instruction, appellate courts in Indiana consider whether the instruction correctly states the law, whether there is evidence in the record supporting the instruction, and whether the substance of the instruction is covered by other instructions. Parties seeking a new trial based upon an improper jury instruction must show a reasonable probability that the party’s substantial rights have been adversely affected, and an erroneous instruction will warrant reversal only if it could have formed the basis of a jury’s verdict.

The Indiana Court of Appeals found that the trial court should have either provided the general instruction with written instructions, or not have given the instruction at all. Since the trial court left it up to the parties to discuss the general instruction during closing arguments, the Court of Appeals believed undue influence was placed on a single instruction. However, because the defendant had put forth some evidence of the plaintiff’s potential fault with regards to the collision and evidence that the plaintiff had pre-existing injuries, the Court held that any error in the giving of the general jury instruction was harmless, as the jury apparently found that the plaintiff had simply failed to meet her burden of proving up her injuries were related to the car accident as opposed to a prior slip and fall. Finding that the trial court failed to properly instruct the jury but that the plaintiff’s substantial rights were not adversely affected, the Court of Appeals found for the defendant and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

You can read the full opinion here.

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