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Whitlow v. McConnaha

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 1, 2019

MARSHA WHITLOW, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
RON McCONNAHA, JODI McCONNAHA, and TIMOTHY NEWTON, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Muscatine County, Stuart P. Werling, Judge.

         The plaintiff in a negligence action appeals the denial of her motion for mistrial and the partial denial of her motion for new trial.

          Benjamin P. Long and Pressley Henningsen of RSH Legal, P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

          Patrick L. Woodward and Ryan F. Gerdes of McDonald, Woodward & Carlson, P.C., Davenport, for appellee.

          Heard by Mullins, P.J., and Potterfield and Tabor, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         After suffering serious injuries in a collision between the motorcycle on which she was a passenger and a farm tractor, Marsha Whitlow sued both drivers. Following trial, the jury returned an incomplete verdict form-finding the tractor driver, Ron McConnaha, was not at fault but failing to address the fault of the motorcycle driver, Timothy Newton. The district court discharged the jury before noticing the omission.

         Whitlow moved for a mistrial or, alternatively, a new trial. The district court granted a new trial only as to defendant Newton. The court concluded the verdict form was "not incomplete" as to defendant McConnaha. Whitlow appeals, contending the nature of comparative fault requires simultaneous consideration and determination of the liability of all potential tortfeasors. McConnaha defends the district court's ruling, first alleging Whitlow failed to preserve her claim by not objecting to the verdict forms and then arguing the jury "fully and completely considered the evidence" as to his liability.[1]

         Because Whitlow is challenging the incomplete jury verdict rather than the directions on the form, we reject McConnaha's error-preservation argument. And because Whitlow is entitled to a complete retrial where the jury compares the fault of both drivers, we reverse the district court's ruling in part, and remand for a new trial allowing Whitlow to litigate her cause against both McConnaha and Newton.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         In June 2015, McConnaha was pulling a hay rake behind his tractor while traveling southbound on Muscatine Road. Newton-Whitlow's fiancé-was driving his motorcycle in the same direction on the two-lane highway. As McConnaha turned left into a farm lane, Newton tried to pass on the left.[2] The motorcycle struck the tractor, and Whitlow-who was riding behind Newton-was seriously injured.[3]

         Whitlow filed a negligence action against McConnaha.[4] McConnaha filed a third-party action against Newton, alleging his negligence as the motorcycle driver. Whitlow then amended her petition alleging negligence against Newton as well.

         The court held a six-day jury trial in late February and early March 2018. Following the presentation of evidence, counsel for the parties addressed the final jury instructions with the district court and submitted the case, along with a four-page special-verdict form, to the jury.[5]

         In relevant part, the verdict form read:

We, the Jury, find the following verdict on the questions submitted to us:
QUESTION NO. 1: Was Ronald McConnaha at fault?
Answer "yes" or "no."
ANSWER:
[If your answer is no, do not answer any further questions and sign the verdict form. If your answer is yes, answer Question No. 2.]
QUESTION NO. 2: Was the fault of Ronald McConnaha a cause of any item of damage to the plaintiff?
Answer "yes" or "no."

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