Some years ago, we told the war story of a jury trial on the meaning of “operates via buoyancy,” where the two sides battled for a few weeks to persuade the jury over their respective views on the meaning of the word, “buoyancy.” After all that, it became apparent from a note sent out by the jury during deliberation that the jury felt that the case hinged on the meaning of the word, “operates” (which neither side had addressed during the trial).

And what happens if a jury finds that Party A is “not at fault” but also finds Party A is also “partially responsible for the injury”?

What is the judge supposed to do? Is she supposed to abide by this internally inconsistent verdict? (How?) Does the judge just get to pick the finding that she agreed with? Does the entire trial have to be re-done? Does Party A win based on this finding of “no fault”? The Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed this situation this week in Anderson v. ISD 96, a lawsuit arising out of a car/school bus accident.

We think that Itasca County District Court, Hon. Lois J. Lang nailed it. One ought not go through the tremendous expense and effort of a civil trial and then treat an inconsistent and incoherent jury verdict as some kind of immutable edict. On the other hand, one cannot simply override the jury’s decision, replacing their oxymoron with one’s own judgment as to the merits of the case. And, finally, ordering a “do over” would be a punishing added expense and delay.

Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead”

So Judge Lang, with the participation of the lawyers in the case, sent the jury back into deliberations to come to a coherent decision, which the jury eventually did. The loser appealed, arguing that once a unanimous verdict is rendered, it cannot be re-submitted to a jury even if the verdict makes no sense.

Kudos also for the Court of Appeals affirmance of the ultimate jury verdict and Judge Lang’s treatment of this somewhat complicated but not all that rare occurrence. We’ll see whether the losing side will seek Minnesota Supreme Court review and, if they do, whether that Court will see things otherwise…

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