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Appellate court orders reinstatement of jury verdict

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Finding a trial judge erred when granting a new trial because he didn’t make specific findings in setting aside a jury verdict, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and ordered the jury verdict reinstated.

In American Family Home Insurance Co. v. Rick Bonta, No. 64A04-1008-CT-516, Rick Bonta sued Laura Morales and his insurer American Family Home Insurance Co. after he was injured in an accident with uninsured Morales. At trial, the jury found Bonta 55 percent at fault for his damages and Morales 45 percent at fault. Bonta filed a motion for judgment on the evidence and asked for a judgment in his favor or a new trial. The trial court set aside the jury verdict and granted the new trial, finding the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The trial judge noted he was acting as a “thirteenth juror” by ordering the new trial.

After determining that American Family had standing to appeal the order, the Court of Appeals had to decide whether the trial judge made his decision under Indiana Trial Rule 50(C) or Rule 59(J). If under 50(C), the judge may grant a new trial and doesn’t have to support the findings, but if the judge made the decision under Rule 59(J), the judge must support the decision with written findings.

The order didn’t specify whether the trial court granted the motion based on Rule 50(C) or 59(J). The appellate court concluded that the judge’s order was granting relief pursuant to 59(J). The order said that the jury verdict was against the weight of the evidence and that the judge was acting as a 13th juror when ordering the new trial, but the order didn’t include special findings or other explanation, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

The judges concluded that the proper remedy in this situation, citing Walker v. Pullen, 943 N.E.2d 349 (Ind. 2011), is to reinstate the jury verdict.

“While we understand that this result may seem harsh as a litigant may be disadvantaged not through his own fault but because a trial court failed to follow all the precedential requirements, we are not the proper court to formulate an alternative,” wrote Judge Riley.

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