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Whitlow v. McConnaha

Supreme Court of Iowa

November 8, 2019

TIMOTHY NEWTON, Third-Party Defendant.

          On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

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

         Defendant exonerated in jury trial seeks further review of court of appeals decision including him in retrial necessitated by error in the verdict form affecting the other defendant. DECISION OF COURT OF APPEALS VACATED; DISTRICT COURT RULING AFFIRMED.

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

          Patrick L. Woodward and Ryan F. Gerdes of McDonald, Woodward & Carlson, P.C., Davenport, for appellees Ron McConnaha and Jodi McConnaha.

          WATERMAN, Justice.

         In this appeal, we must decide whether the retrial of a comparative fault action must include a defendant exonerated by the first jury. The plaintiff was a passenger on her fiancé's motorcycle and suffered personal injuries in its collision with a farm tractor that was turning left while the motorcyclist attempted to pass it on a county road. The plaintiff's negligence claims against the farmer and motorcyclist were submitted to the jury. The first question asked whether the farmer was at fault, and the jury answered "no." The verdict form, in a mistake overlooked by all counsel and the judge, instructed the jury to stop there, and the jury was discharged without deciding whether the motorcyclist was at fault. The plaintiff moved for a new trial against both defendants. The farmer resisted, and the district court ordered a new trial against the motorcyclist alone. The plaintiff appealed, and we transferred her case to the court of appeals, which reversed and remanded the case for a new trial involving both defendants. We granted the farmer's application for further review.

         On our review, we hold the district court correctly omitted the farmer from the new trial. The error in the verdict form prevented the jury from considering the negligence of the motorcyclist, but only after the jury had exonerated the farmer, who should not have to suffer a retrial. Our precedent and cases in other jurisdictions excuse an exonerated defendant from a retrial when the jury's no-liability finding is untainted by the error affecting another party. Accordingly, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the district court's ruling granting a new trial on the plaintiff's claims against the motorcyclist alone.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         The jury could find these facts from the trial record. On June 27, 2015, Marsha Whitlow was a passenger on a motorcycle operated by her fiancé, Timothy Newton, heading south on a paved, two-lane county road. The weather was clear with no precipitation, and the pavement was dry. The speed limit was fifty-five miles per hour. At about 4 p.m., Newton approached a 1976 John Deere farm tractor operated by Ron McConnaha towing a hay rake at ten to fifteen miles per hour in the same southbound lane. The tractor's hazard lights were flashing on the roof of the cab. McConnaha slowed further and activated his left turn signal as he approached a field entrance. He turned his tractor to the left to enter the field while Newton's motorcycle attempted to pass him in the oncoming (northbound) lane. The motorcycle struck the tractor, and Whitlow suffered severe injuries. Emergency personnel airlifted Whitlow to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics where she was treated for a broken neck, leg fractures, rib fractures, and multiple contusions.

         Whitlow filed this civil action against Ron McConnaha and his spouse Jodi McConnaha, co-owners of the tractor.[1] Whitlow alleged Ron McConnaha was negligent in operating his tractor, and his negligence caused the accident. McConnaha filed a third-party contribution claim against Newton, alleging his negligent operation of the motorcycle caused Whitlow's injuries, and Whitlow amended her petition to allege her own direct negligence claim against her fiancé. The case proceeded to a six-day jury trial that began on February 26, 2018. Without objection from any party, the trial court submitted the case to the jury with the following verdict form, which contained an unnoticed error in the bracketed instruction immediately after the first question.[2]

         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."
[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 ...

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