Williams v. Chrysler Ins. Co., 95CA0521

Decision Date11 July 1996
Docket NumberNo. 95CA0521,95CA0521
PartiesNancy L. WILLIAMS, Brandon J. Coleman, James H. Coleman, and Christopher O. McGlone, by and through his duly appointed Conservator/Guardians, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CHRYSLER INSURANCE CO., Defendant-Appellee. . V
CourtColorado Court of Appeals

William C. Danks, Denver, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Ruh & Roberts, L.L.C., Richard P. Ruh, Denver, for Defendant-Appellee.

Opinion by Judge CASEBOLT.

In this declaratory judgment action concerning coverage under an insurance policy plaintiffs, Nancy Williams, Brandon Coleman, James Coleman, and Christopher McGlone (through his guardians), appeal the judgment entered upon a jury verdict for defendant, Chrysler Insurance Company, which determined that there was no coverage. We affirm.

On August 6, 1992, Nancy Williams negotiated for the purchase of a vehicle from an automobile dealer. Williams took possession of the automobile on that day.

Chrysler insured the auto dealership against certain losses. Under the terms of the policy, individuals who drove vehicles owned by the dealership were "insureds" under the dealer's policy, which provided, in pertinent part:

1. WHO IS AN INSURED

a. The following are 'insureds' for covered "autos:"

(1) You [the dealership] for any covered 'auto.'

(2) Anyone else while using with your permission a covered 'auto' you own....

The policy did not define "own" or "permission."

On August 8, 1992, Brandon Coleman, the minor son of Nancy Williams, negligently drove the automobile, causing severe injury to Christopher McGlone. McGlone, through his guardians, sued Coleman and Williams and recovered a stipulated judgment.

Thereafter, plaintiffs prosecuted this action against Chrysler, seeking a declaration that there was coverage under its policy for Coleman and Williams because the dealership "owned" the vehicle and had given permission for Coleman to drive the vehicle on the day of the accident.

There was contradictory evidence presented regarding ownership of the car at the time of the accident. According to the special verdict form, the jury determined that Nancy Williams owned the car on the date that Coleman was involved in the automobile accident.

After the jury returned its verdict, plaintiffs moved for a new trial based upon certain comments made by the jury foreperson when the jury's verdict was delivered, contending that such comments, together with a defective special verdict form and certain improper jury instructions, evidenced jury confusion. They further contended that the trial court had denied their fundamental right to present testimony when it precluded McGlone or his guardians from giving testimony. The trial court denied the motion and this appeal followed.

I.

As an initial matter, Chrysler contends that any objections plaintiffs may have to the special verdict form were not raised in the trial court. However, the record here demonstrates that plaintiffs made specific, contemporaneous objections to the special verdict form and other instructions given to the jury. The trial court ruled on the objections. Accordingly, plaintiffs appropriately raised their objections and did not waive them. See Baum v. S.S. Kresge Co., 646 P.2d 400 (Colo.App.1982).

II.

Plaintiffs contend that the special verdict form and certain jury instructions submitted to the jury by the trial court were prejudicially erroneous. We do not agree.

It is within the sound discretion of the trial court to determine the form and style in which the instructions will be given to the jury. Fieger v. East National Bank, 710 P.2d 1134 (Colo.App.1985). Accordingly, we will not overturn the trial court's decision absent an abuse of such discretion. An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's decision is manifestly arbitrary, unreasonable, or unfair. Hock v. New York Life Insurance Co., 876 P.2d 1242 (Colo.1994).

An instruction which misleads or confuses the jury amounts to error. States v. R.D. Werner Co., 799 P.2d 427 (Colo.App.1990). But, language in a jury instruction cannot be a ground for reversal unless it prejudices a party's substantial rights. Phillips v. Monarch Recreation Corp., 668 P.2d 982 (Colo.App.1983).

Prejudicial error in an instruction exists when the record shows that a jury might have answered differently if a proper instruction had been given. Webb v. Dessert Seed Co., Inc., 718 P.2d 1057 (Colo.1986).

All jury instructions must be read and considered together, and if, collectively, they adequately inform the jury of the law, there is no reversible error. People v. Orona, 907 P.2d 659 (Colo.App.1995).

A.

Plaintiffs argue that the trial court erred in submitting the special verdict form because it confused the jury, and also by refusing their tendered verdict form. We disagree.

The special verdict form given to the jury stated:

Question No. 1: As of the date of the accident, August 8, 1992, who was the owner of the 1990 Ford Tempo driven by Brandon Coleman in the accident? (check one)

___ Nancy Williams

___ Lakewood Chrysler Plymouth

Answer Questions 2 and 3 only if you have found that Lakewood Chrysler Plymouth was the owner of the Ford Tempo on August 8, 1992.

Question No. 2: On the date of the accident, August 8, 1992, was Brandon Coleman using the Ford Tempo with express or implied permission given directly to him by Lakewood Chrysler Plymouth? (Check one)

___Yes ___ No

Question No. 3: As of the date of the accident, August 8, 1992, had Lakewood Chrysler Plymouth given Nancy L. Williams permission to permit Brandon Coleman to use the Ford Tempo without her being present in the automobile?

____Yes ___ No

Plaintiffs contend that the special verdict form submitted to the jury "asked the wrong questions." They argue that the either/or form of the question unduly confused the jury by precluding the jury from determining that the automobile was owned both by Nancy Williams and the dealership. However, plaintiffs do not cite, and we are unaware of, any persuasive authority for the proposition that both Williams and the dealership could "own" the vehicle.

Plaintiffs also contend that the submitted verdict form did not ask whether Brandon Coleman was "insured" within the meaning of the policy. To highlight the fact that plaintiffs believed ownership to be a "sub-issue" of whether Brandon Coleman was insured at the time of the accident, plaintiffs tendered the following special verdict form:

Have the plaintiffs proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Brandon Coleman is an insured under the following language in subparagraph 1(a)(2) found on page 2 of the policy?

1. Who is an Insured

a. The following are insureds for covered "autos"

....

(2) Anyone else while using with your permission a covered "auto" you own ...

In essence, plaintiffs assert that, under their tendered instruction, the jury could have found that the insurance policy covered the risk of the type of accident Brandon Coleman was involved in regardless of its determination of ownership.

We find no abuse of discretion here. The special verdict form given was not confusing or misleading to the jury such that the instruction would lead to prejudicial error. Under the instruction given by the trial court, the issues of fact for the jury to determine were essentially the same as those postured under the verdict form tendered by plaintiffs.

Indeed, plaintiff's counsel conceded during the jury instruction conference that plaintiffs had to prove that Brandon Coleman was driving with the permission of the dealership and that the dealership owned the car. As the trial court correctly noted, the only difference between the two lay in how the issue was presented.

Because no substantial rights of plaintiffs were prejudiced, and because we fail to discern how changing the location of the ownership question would have changed the jury's verdict, we conclude that the special verdict form did not cause jury confusion of such magnitude as to constitute prejudicial error.

B.

Plaintiffs also contend that the court erred by refusing to submit their three tendered instructions to the jury. Again, plaintiffs claim that the jury was confused by the instructions submitted to them and would not have been confused if the rejected instructions had been submitted. We find no error.

The trial court determined that the question whether the automobile was owned by the dealership at the time of the accident was a question of contract law. Accordingly, the court gave the jury an instruction, the pertinent portion of which stated:

In order for ownership of the Ford Tempo to pass from Lakewood Chrysler Plymouth to Nancy Williams, those persons would have to enter into a contract for the purchase and sale of the automobile and intend that ownership pass at the time of entering into the contract. A contract is formed when an offer is accepted.

Plaintiffs' tendered and rejected instruction relative to this issue read as follows:

A contract can be entered into for the immediate change of ownership of a car. Alternatively, a contract can be entered into for a change of ownership at some future date. You must determine whether at the time of the accident, Lakewood Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc. still owned the car.

Plaintiffs suggest that their instruction was necessary for the jury to understand that, although there may have been a "meeting of the minds" on August 6, 1992, the transfer of ownership may have occurred at a later date. However, the trial court advised the jury in an additional instruction that:

The fact that a contract provides that the performance of one or both parties is to occur in the future does not affect the validity of the contract. However, where the existence of the contract depends upon the happening of some future and uncertain event, no contract is formed until the happening of that event.

Reviewing the instructions as a whole, we...

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