Criswell v. King

Decision Date21 October 2003
Citation834 A.2d 505,575 Pa. 34
PartiesGerald CRISWELL, II, and Tracey Criswell, et ux., Appellants, v. David S. KING, Appellee.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Daniel Silver, for Gerald and Tracy Criswell.

George C. Werner, Lancaster, for David S. King.

Before ZAPPALA, C.J., and CAPPY, CASTILLE, NIGRO, NEWMAN, SAYLOR and EAKIN, JJ.

OPINION

Justice CASTILLE.

The issue on this appeal is whether in order to preserve a claim that a jury verdict is contrary to the weight of the evidence, a party must raise an objection to that verdict prior to the jury's discharge. We hold that a weight of the evidence challenge need not be proffered before discharge of the jury in order to preserve the challenge for post-verdict and appellate review. Accordingly, we reverse the order of the Superior Court and remand this case for that court to consider the merits of appellee's appeal.

This case arises from an October 12, 1993, automobile accident in which appellee David S. King's vehicle struck appellant Gerald Criswell's vehicle from behind. Appellee testified that he had looked down to adjust the heater of his automobile and, by the time he looked up, it was too late to avoid hitting appellant. Appellant managed to drive his vehicle to a nearby garage, and his mother then drove him to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with a muscle strain and released the same day. On September 29, 1995, appellant filed a complaint in negligence against appellee, seeking damages for alleged injuries sustained as a result of the accident.

At the ensuing one-day jury trial, appellant's evidence consisted of his own testimony and the videotaped deposition of an expert medical witness. After describing the accident, appellant recounted the headaches and neck pain he had experienced in the ensuing months and years. Appellant also described the medical treatment he received, including corrective surgery he underwent on September 17, 1998, nearly five years after the accident. Appellant claimed that, despite these treatments and the passage of time, his pain had not significantly subsided. Appellant's expert witness, Dr. Hani Tuffaha, a neurosurgeon who had examined him for the first time on June 24, 1998, testified that appellant had a herniated disc and that he had performed corrective surgery after determining that previous non-surgical treatments had been unsuccessful. Dr. Tuffaha further testified, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that appellant's herniated disc and the subsequent surgery were the direct results of the 1993 automobile accident.

Appellee's evidence consisted of his own testimony and the videotaped deposition of his expert witness. Appellee did not challenge appellant's version of the accident, but questioned its severity and the extent of appellant's injuries attributable to the accident. Appellee emphasized that the surgery Dr. Tuffaha performed on appellant occurred almost five years after the accident. Appellee's medical expert, Dr. Paul S. Lin, an orthopedic surgeon, testified that he had examined appellant on April 14, 1999. Dr. Lin stated that a review of appellant's medical records revealed no history of neck problems before the accident and that appellant stated that he had no neck pain prior to the accident. Based upon his assumption that appellant truthfully relayed the onset and nature of his symptoms, Dr. Lin noted that he had assumed that appellant's herniated disc resulted from the automobile accident.

Prior to commencing deliberations, the jury was presented with a verdict slip containing the following three interrogatories: (1) whether appellee was negligent; (2) whether appellee's negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about appellant's harm; and (3) the amount of damages, if any, sustained by appellant as a result of the collision. Neither party objected to the content or phrasing of the interrogatories. Forty-five minutes after deliberations began, the jury returned with a verdict. In response to the negligence interrogatory, the jury answered "Yes." In response to the causation interrogatory, the jury answered "No." Accordingly, the jury did not answer the damages interrogatory.

After hearing the adverse verdict, appellant's counsel declined the trial court's invitation to poll the jury, stating, "I guess there's no need, Judge." The jury was then discharged. Appellant subsequently moved for a new trial, and also alleged that the trial court had erred in failing to enter a directed verdict in his favor. On October 22, 1999, one week after the verdict, appellant filed a timely motion for post-trial relief, which included a request for a new trial based on the jury's verdict being against the weight of the evidence. Appellee did not file a written response but did oppose the motions in oral argument.

On February 1, 2000, the trial court granted a new trial on weight of the evidence grounds. In its subsequent opinion, the trial court noted that appellee had "more or less conceded his negligence" and the issue of causation "was so apparent that most of the expert testimony was concerned with the nature and extent of [appellant's] injuries and whether [appellant] had fully recovered rather than the underlying cause of these injuries." Because the evidence should have led to a jury finding that appellee's negligence had caused appellant damage, the trial court concluded that "the jury's verdict on the causation issue was so contrary to the weight of the evidence as to shock one's sense of justice," thus warranting a grant of a new trial. Slip op. at 2-4.

Appellee appealed to the Superior Court, alleging that appellant had "waived any right to a new trial by failing to object to the allegedly inconsistent verdict before the jury was dismissed," and that, in any event, the court abused its discretion in granting a new trial on weight of the evidence grounds. The Superior Court, 776 A.2d 298, reversed, finding that appellant had waived his weight challenge by failing to object after the jury returned the verdict and before discharge of the jury. In so holding, the panel majority relied upon Picca v. Kriner, 435 Pa.Super. 297, 645 A.2d 868 (1994),alloc. denied, 539 Pa. 653, 651 A.2d 540 (1994), which held that a plaintiff who fails to object to an ambiguous or flawed jury verdict (as reflected in special interrogatories) before the jury is dismissed waives the right to challenge the verdict in post-trial motions. The panel majority concluded that the causation interrogatory in this matter was identical to the interrogatory at issue in Picca and that the Picca panel had found that this circumstance rendered the jury's verdict ambiguous:

[A]s in Picca, the jury herein could have found that [appellee] caused no injury (which would have been incredible based on the evidence presented) or that the injury suffered was not "substantial," which resulted in an ambiguous verdict. In either event, the jury's finding was inconsistent with the undisputed testimony that [appellant] suffered some injury.

Slip op. at 9. In the panel majority's view, if appellant had objected before the jury was discharged, the trial court could have instructed the jury to clarify its ambiguous verdict. Id. at 8, quoting Fillmore v. Hill, 445 Pa.Super. 324, 665 A.2d 514, 518 (1995). The Superior Court further concluded that the jury's verdict must be reinstated because, by failing to object to the ambiguous verdict prior to the discharge of the jury, appellant waived his right to challenge the verdict in post-trial motions. Id. at 9.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Musmanno explained that he was constrained to join the majority because Picca was binding. Judge Musmanno noted, however, that the verdicts in both this case and Picca were not "inconsistent in the traditional sense" because "[a] verdict that finds negligence but no substantial factor is not an inconsistent verdict." Accordingly, Judge Musmanno opined that Picca should be re-examined.

This Court granted appellant's petition for allowance of appeal to determine whether the Superior Court was correct in holding that a party must object to the verdict prior to the discharge of the jury in order to preserve a claim that the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence. The issue is one of importance because the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court have struggled with the holding in Picca, issuing several opinions which either limit or arguably contradict that holding and which, in turn, call into question the propriety of the panel decision in this case, which hewed to Picca despite contrary intervening authority. As the question before us is one of law, our review is plenary. Phillips v. A-Best Products Co., 542 Pa. 124, 665 A.2d 1167, 1170 (1995).

Appellant notes that the Superior Court decision in Picca is built upon this Court's decision in Philadelphia Police Dept. v. Gray, 534 Pa. 467, 633 A.2d 1090 (1993). In Gray, this Court held that, when a party seeks to challenge a jury verdict on grounds that the jury returned inconsistent answers to interrogatories, an objection to the inconsistency must be raised when the verdict is rendered. In so holding, Gray relied upon this Court's landmark issue preservation decision in Dilliplaine v. Lehigh Valley Trust Co., 457 Pa. 255, 322 A.2d 114 (1974), which abrogated the basic and fundamental error doctrine and required parties to preserve issues for appeal by making contemporaneous objections at trial. Citing to Judge Musmanno's concurrence below, appellant notes that the verdict in this case—finding appellee negligent but finding that the negligence was not a substantial factor in causing appellant's harm—is not inconsistent, but merely "disappointing and troublesome." Correspondingly, appellant notes, verdict inconsistency was not the basis for his weight of the evidence challenge; rather, appellant's argument was that the jury's finding that appelle...

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    • United States
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    ...issues is to allow the court to take corrective measures and, thereby, to conserve limited judicial resources. See Criswell v. King, 575 Pa. 34, 834 A.2d 505, 509–10 (2003) (listing policy considerations behind contemporaneous objection requirement). Appellant failed to raise any objection ......
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