Last week, the Supreme Court of Florida affirmed its “long-standing precedent” that a party must timely object to an inconsistent jury verdict or the objection is waived. Coba v. Tricam Indus., Inc., 2015 WL 2236905, at *1 (Fla. May 14, 2015). Accordingly, where a timely objection is made and the inconsistent verdict is not resolved, a new trial is required. In Coba, the Supreme Court addressed whether in products liability cases there exists a “fundamental nature” exception that would relieve a party from having to object immediately to an inconsistent verdict. An inconsistent verdict exists when two definite findings of fact material to the judgment are mutually exclusive. Coba, at *6.
The “fundamental nature” exception derives from the Fourth and Fifth District Courts of Appeal holdings that the inconsistency within a jury verdict is of a fundamental nature such that failing to object before the jury is discharged would not waive the objection. See Nissan Motor Co. v. Alvarez, 891 So.2d 4, 8 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004); Am. Catamaran Racing Ass’n (NACRA) v. McCollister, 480 So.2d 669, 671 (Fla. 5th DCA 1985).
In Coba, the personal representative of the deceased’s estate filed an action against the manufacturer and seller of the thirteen-foot ladder from which decedent fell to his death. The action alleged strict liability and negligence. The jury held that the ladder did not have a design defect that was the legal cause of the decedent’s death, but also found that there was negligence on the part of defendants. Neither party objected to the verdict at the time it was announced. It was after the jury was discharged that defendants filed a motion to set aside the verdict asserting that it was fundamentally inconsistent: one could not find negligent design without also finding that a design defect contributed to the fall because the negligence claim required the existence of a defect.
According to the Coba Court, to preserve the issue of an inconsistent verdict objection a party must immediately raise the issue before the jury is discharged and ask that the trial court instruct the jury to continue its deliberations to cure the verdict. The verdict is not cured of inconsistency until the findings may stand at the same time without conflicting with one another.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court articulated the reasons for requiring immediate objections to inconsistent jury verdicts. First, requiring a party to object immediately to an inconsistent verdict enhances the efficiency of judicial proceedings: (1) it allows the jury to correct its verdict; and (2) it reduces the likelihood that a second trial will be required. Second, mandating a party to raise its objection immediately prevents “gamesmanship” or strategic delays meant to avoid having an award unfavorably adjusted to “gain a calculated benefit.” Coba, at *12. Last, the Court concluded that the requirement of a timely objection promotes the “sanctity of the jury verdict” and permits a jury to correct a verdict based on underlying confusion improperly caused by the court, jury instructions or the parties. Id.
The Supreme Court in Coba rejected the defendants suggestion that product liability law dictates special application of a fundamental nature exception for inconsistent verdicts. Instead, the court held that a party must immediately object to any inconsistency in a verdict, regardless of the underlying allegations, or else the objection is waived.
Overall, the holding in Coba reminds us of the importance of procedural rules in litigation. Failing to object in a timely manner may waive a party’s right to cure underlying confusion or, more importantly, prevent a party from receiving a new trial.