Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Flores v. Bell, et al. (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed March 20, 2007–Opinion by Judge Irma Raker.

Mr. and Mrs. Bell filed an action for negligence against Mr. Flores, alleging that Flores negligently caused injury to Mr. Bell in an automobile accident. The issue concerns a stipulation entered into by the parties before the trial began and the impact this stipulation had on questions submitted by the trial court for consideration by the jury. After a seven-day jury trial, the Bells were awarded $5,329 in damages, from which they appealed. The Court of Special Appeals vacated the judgment and remanded for a new trial.

Prior to the original trial, counsel for both sides orally agreed to stipulate that Flores was liable for the automobile accident. The stipulation was neither reduced to writing nor formally placed on the record. At the close of the Bell's case, after the jury had been excused from the room and after Flores’ counsel announced his intention to make a motion, the court, sua sponte, raised the issue of whether the Bells had proven Flores was driving the vehicle that hit the Bells. The Bells’ counsel raised the issue of the stipulation, while Flores’ counsel clarified that they only admitted responsibility for the damages if the damages were causally proven to have related from the accident. The court reserved ruling on Flores’ Motion for Judgment and informed counsel that a question would be included on the verdict sheet asking the jury to determine whether Flores was the driver of the vehicle that collided with the Bells.

This Court granted Flores’ petition for a writ of certiorari to primarily address the following question (the second question was not addressed in light of the Court’s holding on the first question):

"On review of the trial court’s decision to reserve ruling on a motion for judgment and submit an issue to the jury, can the Court of Special Appeals vacate a jury’s verdict when, if it was error, it was harmless?"

The Court noted that the special verdict sheet required that the jury provide a separate answer to the driver-identification question. The jury's verdict to this question was in favor of the Bells and, even if submitting the question to the jury was error because the issue had been resolved by stipulation, there is nothing in the record, other than the verdict itself, to suggest that the question distracted the jury from reaching a fair and proper verdict on the question of damages. The question did not prejudice the Bells, and the Court of Special Appeals judgment vacating jury verdict was reversed.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

No comments: