Appeals Court Rejects Jury Verdict Finding Neither Driver Liable for Accident

Trial by jury is a cornerstone of the American judicial system. But juries are not infallible. And judges are not required to uphold jury verdicts that are nonsensical or blatantly contradict the evidence introduced at trial. The Appellate Division, Second Department recently dealt with just such a case.

The case itself involves an automobile accident. Two vehicles collided at an intersection in Nassau County. There was a functioning traffic light at the intersection. The driver and passenger of one vehicle sued the driver and owner of the other vehicle for negligence.

At trial, the two drivers accused each other of running a red light, thereby causing the accident. Under New York law, a driver who enters an intersection against a red light is negligent. Both drivers testified they had a green light when they pulled into the intersection. The passenger in the first vehicle did not recall whether his co-plaintiff had a red or green light.

The jury entered a verdict for the defendants. This was not because the jury believed the defendant's testimony that the plaintiff ran the red light. Rather, the jury unanimously held neither driver was negligent.

Nassau Supreme Court Justice Randy Sue Marber did not accept this outcome. She agreed with the plaintiffs that the verdict "was contrary to the weight of the evidence." She directed a new trial on the question of liability. The defendants appealed, seeking reinstatement of the jury verdict, but in an opinion issued on November 12 of this year, the Second Departmentaffirmed Justice Marber.

The Second Department agreed the jury's verdict was illogical. Both cars entered an intersection with a working traffic light. They collided. One of the drivers, therefore, must have run a red light. Each driver accused the other of doing just that. The jury's function was to decide which driver was telling the truth. It was insufficient, the Second Department said, for the jury to throw up its hands and say neither side was at fault. At least one driver broke the law, thereby requiring a finding of negligence.

Now it may be the case, the appeals court observed, that both drivers still contributed to the accident. If a jury finds Driver A ran a red light, it could still find Driver B did something to mitigate Driver A's liability. New York recognizes comparative negligence in accident cases. For instance, a jury might find Driver 80 percent liable and Driver B 20 percent liable. But the jury must still determine liability. In this case, the jury found neither side liable, which was unacceptable to the appeals court.

Accident cases often rely on conflicting testimony by participants and witnesses. It is important to work with an experienced New York accident attorney who can ensure you put your best case forward. As the example above demonstrates, the trial does not always end with a jury's verdict, and you need an attorney who will see your case through a potential appeal and retrial. Contact our office today if you need to speak with an attorney right away.