State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Miranda, 080719 SDSC, 28695-a-MES

Docket Nº:28695-a-MES, 28719-a-MES
Opinion Judge:SALTER, Justice
Party Name:STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. GIYO BRYAN MIRANDA, Defendant, Third-Party Claimant and Appellee, v. JOHN DOE, Third-Party Defendant.
Attorney:BENJAMIN L. KLEINJAN of Helsper, McCarty & Rasmussen, P.C. Brookings, South Dakota Attorneys for plaintiff and appellant. MATTHEW J. MCINTOSH of Beardsley, Jensen & Lee, Prof. LLC Rapid City, South Dakota Attorneys for defendant and appellee.
Judge Panel:GILBERTSON, Chief Justice, and JENSEN, Justice, and KONENKAMP, Retired Justice, concur. KERN, Justice, concurs specially.
Case Date:August 07, 2019
Court:Supreme Court of South Dakota

2019 S.D. 47

STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff and Appellant,

v.

GIYO BRYAN MIRANDA, Defendant, Third-Party Claimant and Appellee,

v.

JOHN DOE, Third-Party Defendant.

Nos. 28695-a-MES, 28719-a-MES

Supreme Court of South Dakota

August 7, 2019

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON FEBRUARY 21, 2019

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FOURTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT LAWRENCE COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE ERIC J. STRAWN Judge

BENJAMIN L. KLEINJAN of Helsper, McCarty & Rasmussen, P.C. Brookings, South Dakota Attorneys for plaintiff and appellant.

MATTHEW J. MCINTOSH of Beardsley, Jensen & Lee, Prof. LLC Rapid City, South Dakota Attorneys for defendant and appellee.

SALTER, Justice

[¶1.] Giyo Miranda lost control of his vehicle, resulting in a head-on collision with another vehicle driven by Loyd Nielson. A third, unidentified vehicle was also allegedly involved in the incident. Nielson's insurer, State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Company (State Farm), pursued subrogation recovery against Miranda. The case was tried to a jury which returned a general verdict in favor of Miranda. The circuit court subsequently denied State Farm's motion for a new trial. State Farm appeals. We affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

[¶2.] On November 20, 2013, 18-year-old Miranda and his older brother Kevin were traveling in a minivan back to Belle Fourche from Rapid City on I-90. Miranda was driving and exited at Whitewood before turning right and continuing west on Highway 34. Miranda explained he was traveling at approximately 30-35 mph in an area where the speed limit changes from 30 mph to 45 mph. The road conditions were icy due to freezing drizzle and snow accumulation on the road. As Miranda continued along an initial curve on Highway 34, he claimed that an unknown vehicle traveling eastbound entered his westbound lane and approached him head-on. Miranda said he swerved to the right shoulder of the road to avoid a collision. When he attempted to pull his minivan back onto the road, it began to slide. Miranda tried to correct the slide, but skidded into the eastbound lane instead and collided with a pickup driven by Nielson.

[¶3.] Nielson, who was insured by State Farm, was traveling home to Hot Springs after leaving an auction in the area. At the subsequent trial, Nielson initially testified that he did not recall seeing a third vehicle before the collision. However, he later acknowledged that there was an unidentified vehicle driving approximately 100 yards in front of him. Nielson also testified that he could see the vehicle apply its brakes in the area where the collision occurred a short while later.

[¶4.] After paying benefits under several separate coverages included in an automobile policy1 issued to Nielson, State Farm pursued a subrogated claim against Miranda, alleging negligence. The case was tried to a jury on April 26-27, 2018. Throughout the case, State Farm maintained the factual theory that the third-party vehicle Miranda described was either nonexistent or never came into his lane of travel.2 Miranda, however, persisted in his position that the vehicle had been present and had swerved into his lane, causing the sequence of events that led to the collision with Nielson.

[¶5.] At the completion of the trial, the circuit court instructed the jury on State Farm's theories of general negligence and negligence per se.3 The court further instructed the jury that if it found Miranda had acted negligently, it could excuse the negligence if it determined he had confronted a sudden emergency not of his own making.4

[¶6.] The circuit court also provided the jury with a detailed instruction describing the individual questions presented and how its determinations would impact the verdict. For example, the first two questions for the jury related to the issues of standard negligence and legal cause: The issues to be determined by you in this case are these:

First, was Defendant Giyo Miranda negligent on November 20, 2013?

If your answer to that question is "no," you must return a verdict for Defendant Giyo Miranda. If your answer is "yes," you will have a second issue to determine, namely:

Was that negligence a legal cause of any injury to Plaintiff State Farm?

If you find Defendant's negligence was not a legal cause of Plaintiff State Farm's injuries, Plaintiff is not entitled to recover damages and you must return a verdict for the Defendant.

Only if the jury determined Miranda had acted negligently and had caused the collision did the court instruct the jury to move on and consider the questions related to the presence of a sudden emergency.

[¶7.] Notwithstanding this detailed instruction concerning the order and effect of the jury's individual factual determinations, the verdict form did not include corresponding special interrogatories. Following its deliberation, the jury returned a general verdict in favor of Miranda that stated only, "[w]e, the jury, duly impaneled in the above-entitled action, and sworn to try the issues, find for the [d]efendant." State Farm moved for a new trial and later sought to supplement the record after realizing one of its proposed instructions was not contained in the clerk's record. Miranda opposed both motions. The circuit court denied State Farm's motion for a new trial, but granted its motion to supplement the record and an oral motion to amend the pleadings to conform to the evidence.

[¶8.] State Farm appeals, raising the following issues for our review: 1. Whether the circuit court abused its discretion when it instructed the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine.

2. Whether the circuit court abused its discretion when it instructed the jury regarding legal excuse for violation of a safety statute.

3. Whether the circuit court abused its discretion when it provided an allegedly incomplete instruction on the effect of the sudden emergency doctrine and an allegedly incorrect instruction detailing the specific sequence of the jury's individual determinations.

Miranda also raises the following issues by notice of review: 4. Whether the circuit court abused its discretion in granting State Farm's motion to amend the pleadings to conform to the evidence.

5. Whether the circuit court abused its discretion in granting State Farm's motion to supplement the record.

Analysis & Decision

[¶9.] Both parties have submitted thorough briefs on the merits of the issues they believe are presented. However, neither party has addressed the significance of the jury's general verdict. We believe we must consider this issue on our own accord. Even if we were to accept State Farm's argument that the circuit court abused its discretion by instructing the jury as it did, our cases require us to assess the prejudicial impact of the court's instructions, and we would inevitably be forced to confront the issue.5

[¶10.] "A party challenging as erroneous a jury instruction must show not only that the instruction was in error, but also that it was prejudicial error to the effect that under the evidence, the jury . . . probably would have returned a different verdict." Veeder v. Kennedy, 1999 S.D. 23, ¶ 34, 589 N.W.2d 610, 618 (citations and quotations omitted). Where a jury returns a general verdict in a case tried upon multiple theories, though, establishing prejudice is difficult because the basis for the jury's verdict is likely uncertain. With a general verdict, "this Court cannot conclusively determine whether the jury based its...

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