February 3rd, 2020
PA Superior Court differentiates inconsistent verdicts from verdicts not supported by the weight of the evidence.
In the case of Avery v. Cercone and Spadafora, Brandon Cercone authorized Harry Spadafora to operate his pick-up truck. Mr. Spadafora allowed Mr. Cercone’s truck to strike the back of Andrea Avery’s car. Mr. Spadafora admitted fault to the incident.
Ms. Avery sued Mr. Spadafora for negligence; and Mr. Cercone for negligent entrustment. The jury returned a verdict against Mr. Spadafora, only, in the amount of $8,500 for lost wages. The jury’s verdict for pain and suffering was $0. During trial, both parties contended that Ms. Avery deserved some compensation for pain and suffering, but they disputed the amount. Following the verdict, defense counsel asked the trial court to send the jury back to reconsider its pain-and-suffering award. Ms. Avery’s attorney responded that returning the jury to the deliberation room was improper. The trial court agreed with defense counsel and directed the jury to resume deliberations and to award something for pain and suffering. The jury returned a second verdict adding $10,000 for pain and suffering. Thus, the new verdict totaled $18,500.
Ms. Avery filed post-trial motions, which the trial court denied. In her appeal to the Superior Court, Ms. Avery challenged the rejection of the original $0 verdict for pain and suffering and the trial court’s instruction that the jurors resume deliberations. She argued the trial judge confused an inconsistent or illogical verdict with a verdict that is against the weight of the evidence. In her view, it was reversible error for the trial court to intervene to correct a verdict which was against the weight of the evidence by instructing the jury to reconsider its prior findings. Instead, Ms. Avery believed the only remedy available to the court when a jury returns a verdict which is against the weight of the evidence is to grant a new trial.
On the other hand, Mr. Spadafora argued that the trial court correctly returned the jury to deliberate further because the undisputed medical evidence demonstrated that Ms. Avery suffered a mild concussion in the subject accident, which is normally associated with some degree of pain and suffering (headaches and dizziness, etc.). Therefore, Mr. Spadafora claimed that the jury’s $8,500.00 verdict for wage loss, but $0 verdict for pain and suffering was inconsistent as a matter of law.
The Superior Court explained the difference between an inconsistent verdict and a verdict that is against the weight of the evidence. Namely, an inconsistent, irrational, or problematic verdict is a verdict that does not clearly report the jury’s factual findings on its face. The inconsistency or problem of such a verdict appears within the four corners of the verdict slip. When this occurs, a trial court should — if a party objects before the jury is dismissed — return that jury to the deliberation room and instruct it to clarify (not reconsider) the verdict. By contrast, a verdict that is against the weight of the evidence is a verdict that shocks the conscience of the trial court in light of the evidence presented. When this occurs, the trial court should — if a party timely raises the issue in post-trial motions — order a new trial. The Superior Court reaffirmed the wide latitude afforded juries on the pain-and-suffering question, stating that a jury is always free to award $0 for pain and suffering. The question then becomes whether such a verdict is against the weight of the evidence such that it shocks the conscience of the trial court.
Here, the Superior Court determined that the facts and issues fell squarely under Burnhauser v. Bumberger, 745 A.2d 1256 (Pa. Super. 2000), which was supported by the PA Supreme Court in Criswell v. King, 834 A.2d 505, 512 (Pa. 2003). In Criswell, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that a trial judge cannot issue a corrective instruction to the jury suggesting that the weight of the evidence does not support its verdict without invading the province of the jury by essentially directing a verdict. In this case, the Superior Court determined that the jury’s $0 verdict for pain and suffering was clear and unambiguous. In other words, the Court found that the trial court had no difficulty ascertaining the decision of the jurors or the meaning of their verdict. Thus, the Superior Court found that the trial court erred when it concluded that the verdict was “inconsistent.” In doing so, the trial court directed a verdict of at least $1 for pain and suffering, which the jury was under no legal obligation to do. Again, the Superior Court stated that the jury is free to reject both side’s evidence of pain and suffering. Therefore, the Superior Court determined that the trial court should have let the verdict stand and waited to see if the plaintiff would file post-trial motions challenging the weight of the evidence. If no such motions were filed, the verdict of $8,500 would have stood as a consistent verdict.
The Superior Court also held that it could not determine whether Ms. Avery was entitled to a new trial. Specifically, the Court stated that the trial court must first rule whether the weight of the evidence supported the $0 verdict before it could determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in either deciding to grant or deny a new trial. Thus, the Superior Court remanded the case back to the trial court for these findings.