The sanctity of jury decisions in civil trials is a well-guarded principle of law in the United States. We entrust a jury of our peers to make decisions concerning liability and damages in civil lawsuits, and only very rarely will such decisions be overturned. Ultimately, while lawyers, witnesses, and parties may disagree with the verdict rendered by a jury, it takes very extreme circumstances for a judge to decide that a jury verdict should not stand. In a recent case in the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia, the Supreme Court made clear the extreme circumstances that justify vacating a jury verdict in a negligence case.
Phillips v. Stear arises from an auto accident that occurred in December 2010. Phillips was a commercial truck driver driving on Interstate 79 when he claims that Stear veered in front of his vehicle and slammed on the brakes in an act of sudden road rage. In order to avoid hitting Stear, Phillips swerved and wrecked his truck. Stears then attempted to flee the scene of the accident but was followed by a third party witness who obtained his license number. Stears was later tracked down by the police. Phillips sued Stear for injuries, claiming that he had been negligent in his driving.
At trial, Stears argued that he did not cause the accident and was unaware that it even happened until he was tracked down by the police. According to Stears, he was falsely accused. In support of his argument, Stears attempted to paint a picture of himself as an excellent and careful driver with no history of driving issues. In support of this argument, he testified that he had never received a traffic ticket. In response, Phillip’s attorney attempted to impeach Stears on a recent traffic citation he had received, but was prevented from doing so by the judge. After hearing all of the evidence, the jury concluded that Phillips had failed to prove that Stears had caused the accident.
After trial, Phillips’ attorney filed a motion seeking relief from the jury verdict based on fraud or misrepresentation, alleging that Stears had lied about several prior traffic citations that he had received, as well as prior driving altercations. According to Phillips, this evidence was concealed by Stears because it was inconsistent with his position that he was a careful driver. Because Stears allegedly misled the jury, Phillips argued that the verdict was unjust.
On appeal, the Supreme Court granted Phillips’ motion, finding that he had presented the extreme circumstances necessary for a vacated judgment. Although acknowledging the importance of protecting finality in judgments, the Court determined that the interests of fairness required that the verdict be overturned. Specifically, the Court noted that Phillips had clearly established that Stear engaged in misconduct and misrepresentation by failing to disclose his bad driving history. Additionally, the Court determined that such misconduct greatly prejudiced Phillips because Stear’s defense at trial was predicated on his good driving behavior. By failing to disclose his driving history, Stears “precluded Phillips from effectively challenging Stear’s claims” and resulted in a jury verdict that was unfairly obtained.
While protecting jury verdicts is an important part of the judicial process, it is equally as important to ensure that parties receive a fair chance at trial. If you are concerned that your chances of success may be compromised by misconduct by an opposing party, the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our West Virginia personal injury lawyers have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury matters and will fight for your right to a fair trial, or vacating a judgment, if necessary. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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