$12.7M Verdict for Defective Road Condition to be Revisited

An appellate court has ordered a partial re-trial of a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from a motorcycle accident caused by a negligent motorcyclist and a defective road. curve

The new trial shouldn’t result in any less damages for the plaintiff, but it could alter how much each defendant has to pay. That’s because the issue of apportionment was decided with the help of an alternate juror, who was a replacement for another juror removed by the trial court. The juror who was removed later said she was leaning toward finding that the state had lesser liability than the defendant driver. Appellate court justices ruled that the trial judge erred in removing the juror, and the error was prejudicial because the juror was inclined to favor the state.

The facts of the case, recently before California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six, are that two motorcyclists were involved in a crash on a two-lane highway. The speed limit on the road was 55 mph. The crash happened on a sharp, blind curve. The state installed a warning sign for motorists northbound to reduce their speed to 25 mph in order to safely negotiate the curve. However, there was no such sign for motorists traveling the other way. Defendant was traveling southbound. He did not reduce his speed. As a result, he lost control of his motorcycle as he turned the curve. He crossed over the center line, striking decedent head-on. Decedent died at the scene. 

Decedent was survived by his wife, adult son and two underage children. His wife and adult son filed a wrongful death motorcycle accident lawsuit, both individually and on behalf of the minor children.

Plaintiffs alleged the highway was defectively designed, and defendant motorcyclist was also negligent for failing to slow down ahead of the curve.

After closing arguments, plaintiff’s attorney and co-counsel moved to discharge one of the jurors for allegedly sleeping during part of the trial. An attorney for the state did not believe the juror was sleeping, but instead said she appeared “annoyed” and “frustrated” and had rolled her eyes a number of times, as well as closing her eyes with her hands on her eyebrows. The court reporter sent a noted to the judge via the internal system indicating she thought the juror had been sleeping.

Jurors deliberated for about 90 minutes before they were excused for the day. The next day, one of the jurors called the court to inform the judge that one of the other jurors wasn’t adequately deliberating. The judge was inclined to inquire about these allegations, but the state advocated for delaying the inquiry until further deliberations. The judge asked a series of leading questions (intended to discourage the juror from indicating which way she or other jurors were leaning), and it was in this course of questioning that she identified the non-participatory juror as the one who had allegedly been sleeping. The juror being questioned claimed the other had a fixed conclusion about the outcome at the outset of the case.

The court brought in another juror to ask whether it was their belief one among them had preconceived notions at the outset. He responded in the affirmative, and also identified the “sleeping” juror.

The state wanted the judge to question the jury foreperson, but the judge chose instead to discharge the juror without further inquiry and use an alternate.

Jurors – with the alternate – reached a verdict that day, awarding $12.7 million to plaintiff, which was the state’s 90 percent share of the total verdict. Defendant motorcyclist bore the other 10 percent liability.

The appellate court reversed with regard to the apportionment, affirming the verdict in all other respects. That means a new trial will be held to determine whether that that 90-10 split was appropriate.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Shanks v. DOT, March 9, 2017, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six

More Blog Entries:

Injury Lawsuit Alleges Car Makers Knew Airbags Were Defective, March 13, 2017, Motorcycle Accident Lawyer Blog

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