Trial by jury is a basic right for all plaintiffs who bring a personal injury lawsuit. But sometimes juries return conflicting or contradictory verdicts. And there are times when such verdicts must be set aside and a new trial ordered. A recent example from the Appellate Division, Third Department, illustrates this important legal principle.
Durrans v. Harrison & Burrowes Bridge Constructors, Inc.
A woman was riding her bicycle in Rockland County. She approached a bridge closed for construction. She took the designated detour onto an adjacent road. While riding on the detour route, the bicycle hit a partially recessed manhole cover, causing the woman to fall and sustain serious injuries.
The woman subsequently sued the contractor hired to perform the construction work on the bridge. While the contractor was not responsible for the recessed manhole cover—which was apparently a preexisting hazard—the plaintiff alleged the contractor's “placement of orange barrels along the detour route increased the danger posed by that condition.” In other words, she argued the barrels diverted her towards the dangerous manhole cover, and the contractor was therefore responsible for her injuries.
The case was tried before a jury in Albany County Supreme Court. The jury held the contractor's placement of the barrels was negligent, but simultaneously found it was not a “substantial factor” responsible for the plaintiff's injuries. The plaintiff asked the trial judge to set aside the verdict, arguing it made no sense to find the defendant negligent but not liable for her injuries. The judge denied the motion and said the jury's verdict would stand.
But the Third Department disagreed. In a May 7 opinion, the appeals court set aside the jury's inconsistent verdict and ordered a new trial. While there are cases where a plaintiff's own conduct might be the “superseding” cause of an accident, even where the defendant is negligent, that was not the situation here, according to the Third Department. Here, the jury “actually found that defendant was negligent in placing the orange barrels.” This negligent act diverted the plaintiff towards the defective manhole cover. There was no evidence presented at trial suggesting the plaintiff acted unreasonably or irresponsibly under the circumstances; therefore there was nothing that would allow a reasonable jury to conclude the defendant was negligent but not responsible for the plaintiff's injuries.
Need Help Proving Your Case?
There are times where a plaintiff's acts may reduce or nullify the defendant's liability. But as the Third Department explained in the case above, those acts must be “so extraordinary or unforeseeable as to make it unreasonable to hold [the] defendant responsible for the resulting damages.” It is not enough for a defendant to simply accuse a plaintiff of misconduct in order to escape his or her own liability. That is why, whether you are a plaintiff or defendant in a personal injury lawsuit, it is essential you work with an experienced New York accident attorney. Contact our offices today if you need to speak with a qualified attorney about your case.