What Happens When a Jury Contradicts Itself? $1 Million Verdict Overturned in Garcia v. Seneca Nursing Home

The right to a trial by jury is a central tenant to American law. As a result, courts tend to be reluctant to overturn a jury’s verdict. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, if a jury’s verdict is found to be in conflict with current laws, a court might overrule the verdict. Also, if a jury award contradicts the jury’s own statements and opinions, then a judge or court might be inclined to vacate the jury verdict.

The Illinois wrongful death case of Philemont Garcia, etc. v. Seneca Nursing Home, etc., 2011 Ill.App. (1st) 103085, demonstrates what happens when an jury contradicts itself. The Cook County jury awarded the decedent’s estate $1 million as compensation for Roberto Garcia’s fall to his death after he climbed out of a fifth story window while staying at Seneca Nursing Home. In theory, the jury award meant that the jury had found the defendant nursing home negligent for contributing to the decedent’s death. Yet in a response to a special interrogatory, the same jury had stated that the nursing home could not have foreseen the circumstances leading to the resident’s death.

The case facts of the Illinois wrongful death lawsuit centered around Roberto Garcia, a resident at Seneca Nursing Home. Garcia suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, along with blindness, abnormal muscle tone, and chronic restlessness. He suffered from delusional behavior and occasional hallucinations. In addition, Garcia had difficulty walking on his own and was essentially wheelchair dependent. Yet despite his physical limitations, Garcia was found wandering away and hiding at times and had made more than one attempt to try and climb out his bedroom window.

According to trial evidence, there was no record of Garcia ever being identified as presenting a risk for self-harm, suicide, or escape. As a result, no clear plan was ever developed to prevent him from climbing out of his window. The lack of preventive measures was partly explained through testimony by Garcia’s psychologist and psychiatrist, both of whom testified that they did not think that the fifth floor windows in Garcia’s room even opened. They further stated that if they had known that they did, they would have been more proactive in formulating a preventive care plan to limit Garcia from escaping through the window.

At the end of the trial, the defense submitted a special interrogatory to the jurors. A special interrogatory is a question a party submits to the jurors, typically aimed at deciding a major legal component of the case. In Garcia, the defense submitted a special interrogatory that asked whether the jurors believed it was “reasonably foreseeable” that Garcia would kill himself or act self-destructively. The Cook County jury answered in the negative, but then went on to enter a $1 million jury verdict in favor of the nursing home’s negligence.

The defendant attorneys contended that the jury could not find the nursing home guilty for failing to prevent something that the jury had found to be unpreventable. The defense attorneys filed a motion to vacate the verdict, arguing that the jurors answer to the special interrogatory conflicted with its general verdict.

The Cook County judge agreed with the defense attorneys and voided the $1 million jury verdict. The judge’s ruling was made in accordance with the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure §2-1108, which states that “When the special finding of fact is inconsistent with the general verdict, the [special interrogatory] controls the latter and the court may enter judgment accordingly.” In Garcia, the jury found that the defendant nursing home could not have predicted Garcia’s self-destructive behavior, a finding that was then inconsistent with its $1 million verdict. Therefore, because §2-1108 states that the findings of the special interrogatory takes precedence, the judge ruled that the verdict needed to be overturned.

Rather than responding to the defendant’s motion with its own post-trial motion to let the trial judge reconsider its ruling, the plaintiff attorney filed a timely notice of appeal. In its appeal, the plaintiff attorneys argued that the jury’s answer to the special interrogatory did not in fact conflict with its verdict and that the trial judge had erred by giving the jury the special interrogatory in an improper form.

However, before reviewing these claims, the appellate court needed to first decide whether the plaintiff’s attorney had forfeited its right to a review by its failure to file a post-trial motion protesting the trial judge’s ruling in favor of the defendant’s motion to vacate the verdict. The appellate court was critical of the plaintiff for not submitting its own motion to vacate the jury’s answer to the special interrogatory, especially given plaintiff’s claim that the special interrogatory itself was improper. Likewise, the appellate court stated that the plaintiff had also missed an opportunity to request a new trial based on the idea that the “improper” special interrogatory biased the jury.

And while the appellate court criticized the plaintiff’s attorney for not filing a post-trial motion and thus “perserv[ing] error in the particular procedural situation,” the appellate court still agreed with the trial judge and upheld the decision to vacate the verdict. In its decision, the appellate court refuted the plaintiff’s attorney’s claims that the special interrogatory was confusing. In addition, the court pointed out that the plaintiff’s attorney himself stated in his closing arguments that no one knew the real reason Garcia went out the window and that the only question at issue was whether or not the fall was reasonably foreseeable, a statement that mimics the special interrogatory question. Therefore, the appellate court did not see reason to vacate the special interrogatory, or to uphold the conflicting jury verdict. So while the decedent’s estate might have been awarded an $1 million verdict for nursing home negligence by the Cook County jury, its victory was short-lived.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois nursing home negligence cases and Cook County wrongful death cases for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Bannockburn, South Holland, Peoria, and Schaumburg.

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