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Justices disagree on whether jury instruction requires new trial

March 21, 2012

The majority of Indiana justices ordered a new trial on liability for a school corporation being sued for wrongful death, finding one of the jury instructions could have misled the jury about a key issue regarding liability.

Maria Rosales sued LaPorte Community School Corp. after her son choked to death on food while eating lunch at an elementary school. The jury awarded her $5 million, which was entered as $500,000, the maximum amount then allowed under the Indiana Tort Claims Act. The school corporation appealed, and the focus of this opinion is Final Instruction 22. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on this issue.

The majority found that the language of Instruction 22 reasonably could have been interpreted and applied by the jury in a way that substantially misstated the plaintiff’s burden of proof with respect to establishing negligence on the part of the school corporation.

“Such an interpretation effectively creates new duties not recognized by the common law in Indiana,” wrote Justice Brent Dickson in LaPorte Community School Corporation v. Maria Rosales, No. 46S04-1105-CT-284.
 
Because they are unable to conclude whether the jury’s verdict would have been the same if that instruction had unambiguously and correctly stated the law, the majority reversed and remanded for a new trial on the issue of liability only.

Justice Frank Sullivan dissented, pointing out that Instruction 11 laid out the required standard by explaining that negligence is failure to exercise reasonable or ordinary care. It’s well settled that jury instructions are to be considered as a whole and in reference to each other, he wrote.

“I see no basis for finding that the jury was misled here. Instruction 11 corrected any error in Instruction 22 such that the jury could not have been misled as to the law,” he wrote.

 

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