Is a Jury Free to Find Negligence Did Not Cause Injury?
Generally, in order for a plaintiff to prevail in a negligence case, he must establish that: (1) the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) a causal relationship exists between the breach and the resulting injury suffered by the plaintiff; and (4) an actual loss was suffered by the plaintiff. It is often a plaintiff’s position that a ruling of negligence combined with an uncontroverted injury automatically requires a finding that the negligence was a substantial factor in causing the accident that resulted in injury. However, in two recent Pennsylvania Superior Court cases, the court affirmed that a jury is free to conclude that a defendant’s negligence was not the cause of a plaintiff’s injury, so long as their decision is supported by testimony or facts not inherently improbable nor at odds with admitted or proven facts or within their ordinary experience.
In Koziar v. Rayner, 200 A.3d 513 (Pa.Super. 2018), the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision to vacate a jury verdict in favor of the defendants in a trip and fall case and grant the plaintiff a new trial. The plaintiff, Koziar, a house cleaner, alleged she tripped and fell on the drop-off edge of a concrete garage floor slab when she was exiting to the driveway. It was dark, and the area was not visible. At trial, the defense was able to elicit through cross-examination of the plaintiff that she had given numerous conflicting accounts concerning the exact location of her fall and what actually caused her to fall, including several statements that she thought she had tripped on debris in the garage. The jury returned a verdict finding that the defendants were negligent, but that their negligence was not a factual cause of the harm suffered by the plaintiff.
Thereafter, the trial court granted the plaintiff’s request for a new trial on the basis that the jury’s decision was against the weight of evidence. The Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision to vacate the jury verdict and grant a new trial, noting that the jury was “free to believe one or more of the versions of events provided by the plaintiff…but ultimately determined that the version was not where or how plaintiff fell and sustained her injuries” or, alternatively, “the jury could have found that while defendants were negligent, it was not their negligence, but rather plaintiff’s own negligence that caused her injuries.”
Recently, the Superior Court reaffirmed its holding in Koziar when it affirmed a trial court’s decision not to grant a new trial in the case of Steudler v. Keating, 2019 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 792 (Pa.Super. Mar. 6, 2019). Steudler involved a consolidated trial against a single defendant in a personal injury and wrongful death and survival action arising out of a vehicle-pedestrian collision. At trial, undisputed evidence was presented that the two plaintiffs were walking together along an unlit road with their backs to approaching traffic. The disputed issues at trial concerned whether the plaintiffs were walking in the roadway, how the defendant was driving, and the weather and visibility conditions at the time of accident. The defendant testified he was driving on the roadway between the center line and fog line and that he did not see the plaintiffs before the passenger side of his vehicle collided with one of them. Both the responding police officer and surviving plaintiff testified that the road where the accident occurred was dark and it was raining heavily. The responding officer also testified that the deceased plaintiff was wearing dark clothing, one of his shoes was discovered partially lying on the fog line, and he found no tire marks or other markings on the pavement that would indicate the defendant’s vehicle traveled off the roadway.
The case was submitted to the jury, which returned unanimous verdicts in which they found that the defendant was negligent, but that his negligence did not cause harm to either of the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs requested a new trial, arguing the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence, which the trial court denied. Citing Koziar, the Superior Court stated, “[a] verdict that the defendant was negligent and that his negligence did not harm the plaintiff cannot be set aside as contrary to the weight of the evidence simply because it was undisputed that the accident injured the plaintiff, if the defendant’s negligence and its causal relationship to the accident were in dispute and there was evidence from which the jury could find that the defendant’s negligence did not cause the accident.”
These cases illustrate the importance of conducting a thorough and complete review of all records and reports containing statements from the plaintiff or a witness from the date of the underlying incident up to and including the time of trial, regardless of the context in which those statements were made. At minimum, conflicting and contradictory statements from a plaintiff are valuable pieces of evidence that may gain leverage in potential settlement negotiations and, at best, when deployed properly via cross examination and during argument before a jury, a foundation upon which a jury can reach a verdict in your favor.
*Michael is an associate in our Erie, Pennsylvania office. He can be reached at 814.480.7807 or GMGarcia@mdwcg.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 25, No. 2, June 2019. Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2019 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact email@example.com.