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Green v. City of Fort Dodge

Court of Appeals of Iowa

January 10, 2018

ALEVIA GREEN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CITY OF FORT DODGE, IOWA, A Municipal Corporation, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Webster County, Kurt J. Stoebe, Judge.

         Alevia Green appeals from the district court's denial of the motion for new trial and apportionment of court costs.

          Jerry L. Schnurr III of Schnurr Law Firm, PC, Fort Dodge, for appellant.

          J. Scott Bardole of Andersen & Associates, West Des Moines, for appellee.

          Heard by Danilson, C.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.

          DANILSON, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Alevia Green appeals from the district court's denial of the motion for new trial and apportionment of court costs. Green maintains a new trial should be granted because post-verdict evidence establishes jury confusion as to damages. Green contends she is entitled to a new trial on the basis the verdict is inadequate as to damages and is not supported by sufficient evidence and does not render substantial justice as to damages and the allocation of fault. Green also asserts the trial court abused its discretion in apportioning costs equally between both parties. Upon careful review of the evidence, we find the trial court did not err or abuse its discretion in denying the motion for new trial. We also find the court acted within its discretion in assessing costs equally between the parties. We therefore affirm.

         I. Background Facts & Proceedings.

         On April 30, 2012, Green was working as a sorter at a recycling center in Fort Dodge when an employee of the City of Fort Dodge (the City) drove a truck carrying a dumpster into the recycling center to dump a load of paper. Green was working in the paper pile, and the employee backed up the truck to the pile near the area where Green was sorting. Green was approximately eight feet from the passenger side front wheel of the truck. Green did not move away from the truck. The employee pulled forward at idle speed and raised the dumpster to dump its contents. The employee hit the brakes to shake loose the remaining paper from the dumpster, causing the dumpster door to swing loose and strike Green in the right back shoulder, knocking her to the ground.

         Green was taken to the hospital and reported headaches and pain in her upper back and shoulder. A CT scan[1] revealed Green did not have bleeding in her brain. Green reported she did not remember anything between being struck by the dumpster door and when she was in the ambulance. Green was diagnosed with a Grade 3 concussion-a minor head injury.

         Between the date of the injury and the date of trial commencing July 12, 2016, Green saw approximately nine doctors to address continuing pain in her shoulder, upper back, and neck; ongoing migraines, which Green maintains began as a result of her injury; and anxiety. Green was released to return to work at the recycling center in August 2012. Green was given a different position requiring less physical activity but was fired in February 2013 because she could not keep up with the responsibilities of her job.

         Green filed suit against the City on April 25, 2014, alleging the city employee's negligence caused Green's injuries. Green sought damages for past and future medical expenses, loss of earnings, loss of earning capacity, past and future physical and mental pain and suffering, and past and future loss of use. The jury trial was held July 12 through 14, 2016. On July 18, the jury rendered its sealed verdict finding both Green and the City fifty percent at fault. The jury awarded Green $25, 000 for past medical expenses, $10, 000 for past pain and suffering, $1000 for past loss of use, and $5000 for loss of earnings, totaling $41, 000. The jury did not award damages for future medical expenses, future pain and suffering, future loss of use, or loss of earning capacity.

         After the rendering of the verdict, the following occurred[2]:

[T]he court attendant told me that we had a verdict. Got the verdict form, called counsel, ran through the verdict forms.
I ... ran through the answers that there were. And they appeared to be consistent and so I was ready to discharge the jury.
We went in to tell the jury that they were discharged. And as I have been instructed to do in my continuing education classes, I conduct sort of a debriefing for the jury. And we are instructed not to ask them how they've reached their verdict. And there is sort of a standard response that I give, which is whatever verdict you have reached is the right verdict.
I believe maybe it was the third time that they broached that issue that someone said ....
Someone said that they wanted to give the plaintiff $41, 000. And I didn't say anything. One of the jurors then looked at me and said, well, that is the amount that the plaintiff will receive, right, something to that effect. And I said no.
Well-And I was asked why. I said because you have assessed 50/50 on the negligence issue so the plaintiff will actually receive $20, 000. The next reaction was uniform shock by the jury. That is not what we want to have happen. How do we change that. I told them that there wasn't anything that they could do about it because I was back in the jury room and they were no longer deliberating. My presence contaminated their deliberation.
They asked me what would happen. And I said, well, I don't know, but I suppose it's possible that the matter could be mistried and retried. And there was uniform shock about that. We don't want that to happen. Isn't there someone we can call. Can't we talk to someone. I said, well, the attorneys will contact you and you can talk to the attorneys about what happened. . . .
On and on we went. And finally they said isn't there something we can do tonight. I said, well, you can write ... a letter to the attorneys, to the Court, and that I will file that letter. I will give that to the attorneys, and we'll go from there. I suggested to them that they all sign the letter if they all agreed to it.

         The jurors filled out a second verdict form to express their desire that Green ultimately receive $41, 000. The second verdict form still allocated fifty percent fault to both Green and the City, but awarded $50, 000 for past medical expenses, $20, 000 for past pain and suffering, $2, 000 for past loss of use, and $10, 000 for loss of earnings. At the bottom of the form, the jury wrote, "The wording of question 6 was misinterpreted by the jury. We intended to award Alevia Green the $41, 000. Please see above where we have reconfigured our totals."

         Question 6 instructed:

State the amount of damages sustained by Alevia Green caused by the fault of the City of Fort Dodge as to each of the following items of damage. Do not take into consideration any reduction of damages due to Alevia Green's fault. If Alevia Green has failed to prove any item of damage, or has failed to prove that any item of damage was caused by the fault of the City of Fort Dodge enter "0" for that item.

         On July 28, Green filed a motion for new trial, arguing a new trial was warranted because the damages awarded were inadequate, inconsistent, and appeared to have been influenced by confusion; and the verdict was not supported by sufficient evidence. The trial court set a hearing for August 8, 2016, stating "[a]s a result of the confusion in the verdict, the court must determine whether to accept the verdict or declare a mistrial." The City resisted the motion for new trial, but suggested at the August 8 hearing on posttrial motions the trial court could enter an additur to award Green the full $41, 000 to correct the confusion surrounding the damages award. The City stated it would not object to an additur. However, Green's attorney seemingly stated Green would not agree to an additur and maintained a new trial was appropriate under the circumstances.[3] In an August 11 order, the trial court ultimately held:

The court finds that the verdict is supported by the evidence given the discretion in setting non-economic damages. . . .
The heart of the matter is the jury's professed misinterpretation of the language in Question No. [6] telling them "not to take into consideration any reduction of damages due to Alevia Green's fault." In reality, the jury followed the instruction correctly in rendering its verdict. The problem has arisen when the jury was misinformed how the court would apply the attribution of negligence to the verdict.
The plaintiff argues that the jury's desire to award a given amount and to work backward to a result entitles her to a mistrial because it constitutes jury misconduct and the equivalent of a quotient verdict. The argument would be persuasive if the jury had indeed done that. But it did not. The jury wants the court to do such a computation post trial and the jury has requested that the parties permit the court to enter such a verdict. However, the verdict, as it was rendered, was appropriate and correctly computed.

         The trial court upheld the jury's verdict awarding Green $20, 500 in total damages and assessing costs equally between the parties.[4] Green now appeals. Green contends a new trial is warranted because passion or prejudice caused the jury to award inadequate damages under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.1004(4), sufficient evidence does not support the verdict as to damages and the allocation of fault pursuant to Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.1004(6), and the verdict fails to effect substantial justice. Green also asserts the trial court erred in assessing costs to be divided equally between the parties.

         II. Standard of Review.

         "We review the denial of a motion for new trial based on the grounds asserted in the motion." Fry v. Blauvelt, 818 N.W.2d 123, 128 (Iowa 2012) (citation omitted). Because sufficiency of the evidence presents a legal question, we review a challenge to the trial court's denial of a motion for new trial under rule 1.1004(6) for the correction of errors at law. Id. We review the district court's denial of a motion for new trial based on the claim the jury awarded inadequate damages under rule 1.1004(4) for an abuse of discretion. See id.

         "In addition to the grounds for granting a new trial set out in rule 1.1004(6) [and (4)], the trial court has inherent power to set aside a verdict when the court concludes, 'the verdict fails to administer substantial justice.' We review the court's ruling on a motion for new trial based on this ground for an abuse of discretion." Estate of Hagedom ex rel. Hagedom v. Peterson, 690 N.W.2d 84, 87-88 (Iowa 2004) (citations omitted).

         "In reviewing the motion for new trial, '[w]e view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and need only consider the evidence favorable to plaintiff whether it is contradicted or not.'" Estate of Pearson ex rel. Latta v. Interstate Power & Light Co., 700 N.W.2d 333, 345 (Iowa 2005) (citation omitted).

         We review the trial court's apportionment of costs for an abuse of discretion. Long v. Jensen,522 N.W.2d 621, 624 (Iowa ...


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