“Fundamentally inconsistent” Jury Award Prompts Florida Appeals Court To Reverse

Juries are fickle.  There is just no getting around it.  Ask any seasoned trial attorney, and he or she can probably tell you about the jury that “got it all wrong” – not simply, perhaps, because they ruled against the lawyer’s client, but because their award or decision defied all logic. That was the issue that confronted Florida’s third district court of appeals in the case Tricam Ind  ustries, Inc., et al v. Coba, 100 So.3d 105 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2012), reh’g denied (Nov. 19, 2012) [PDF].  The case centered around a ladder manufactured by Tricam Industries and sold by Home Depot.  The decedent, a civil engineer, died 10 days after falling from the ladder from injuries sustained in that fall.  The plaintiff alleged strict liability and negligence against both defendants in several particulars, including manufacturing and design defects.  At trial, the evidence focused only on the design of the ladder, however.   Specifically, the plaintiff’s expert opined that the design of the ladder was such that it could give the impression of being in the locked position when, in fact, it was not.    The defendant’s expert, predictably, opined that the ladder could not “false lock.”

Prior to closing arguments, the plaintiffs withdrew the manufacturing defect claims.  In addition, the court limited the jury instructions to design defects in both the  strict liability and negligence theories.  The jury, however, returned a verdict finding that there were no design defects, but that the negligence of the defendants was a legal cause of the decedent’s death, and awarded more than $1.5 million to the plaintiff. After trial, the defendants argued that the verdict should be set aside because the finding of no design defects was fundamentally inconsistent with its finding of negligence.  The plaintiff also moved for a new trial based on some issues with one of the jurors not pertinent to a products liability discussion.  The trial court denied both motions.

The appellate court considering the defendants’ motion reversed the trial court’s decision.  First, however, it noted that a reversal on such grounds is no small task, given the fact that the defendants had failed to object to the verdict at the time it was rendered:

The plaintiff concedes that the verdict in this case was inconsistent, but argues that the defendants waived their objection to the inconsistency by failing to object before the jury was discharged. Normally, we would agree. The Fourth and Fifth District Courts of Appeal, however, have carved out an exception to this general rule where the inconsistency “is of a fundamental nature.” Because we agree with the well-reasoned opinions of our sister courts to the north, and because there is no case in this district which has held to the contrary, we adopt the “fundamental nature” exception as applied in this context.
100 So. 3d at 108-09 (internal citations omitted).  Citing prior opinions from those districts, the Third District, which heard this case, adopted that test and reversed the verdict.

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