(updates article posted on Aug. 19, 2014)

On May 14, 2015 the Supreme Court of Florida rejected the “fundamental nature” exception with regard to objecting to an inconsistent verdict in products liability cases and announced that “a timely objection is required to an inconsistent verdict in all civil cases.”  See Coba v. Tricam Indus., Inc., No. SC12-2624.  To read the complete opinion, please click here.

Robert Coba fell from a thirteen-foot aluminum ladder that resulted in his death. Robert’s daughter, Diana Coba, the personal representative of Robert Coba’s estate, filed an action against Tricam Industries, the ladder manufacturer, and against Home Depot, which sold the ladder.

Coba asserted two claims against the defendants:  (1) that defendants were liable under a strict liability theory because they designed, manufactured, marketed, distributed, or sold a ladder in a defective and dangerous condition; and (2) that the defendants were liable under a negligence theory because they had a duty to use reasonable care to market, sell, and distribute the ladder in a reasonably safe condition.

At trial, Coba and the defendants presented conflicting evidence as to whether the ladder had a design defect.  On the strict liability claim, the jury found that the defendants did not place the ladder on the market with a design defect.  On the the negligence claim, the jury found that there was negligence on the part of the defendants, but that Robert Coba was 80% comparatively negligent. The jury awarded no damages to the estate for medical and funeral expenses, awarded $70,000 to Robert’s daughter for the loss for her father’s support and services, and awarded $1,500,000 to Coba’s daughter for the loss of parental companionship and for pain and suffering. After the verdict was read, neither party objected to the verdict and the jury was discharged.

Defendants sought to set aside the verdict, arguing that the verdict was fundamentally inconsistent because there can be no finding of negligent design without finding that a design defect contributed to the fall.  Coba asserted that defendants waived their claim of an inconsistent verdict by failing to object before the jury was discharged.  In the alternative, Coba argued that if no timely objection was required, the remedy should be a new trial on all liability issues. The trial court denied the defendants’ motion to set aside the verdict and Coba’s motion for a new trial, but found the verdict inadequate as to the medical expenses.

On appeal, the Third District disagreed with the lower court’s decision to deny the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict. The Third District held that a party does not waive a challenge to an inconsistent jury verdict by failing to object prior to the discharge of the jury, so long as the inconsistency is of a “fundamental nature.” The Third District determined that the verdict inconsistency was of “fundamental nature.”  Judge Schwartz dissented, stating that the defendants waived the inconsistent verdict issue by not raising it after the jury returned with the verdict.

The Florida Supreme Court accepted review and held that the “fundamental nature” exception no longer applies, and a timely objection is required for all inconsistent verdicts.  The Court found that the “fundamental nature” exception carries with it four problems.  First, the exception is at odds with the general principles that govern inconsistent verdicts. Second, an inconsistent verdict does not mean that there was no evidence to support one finding over another finding. Third, the exception is at odds with the limited use of “fundamental error,” applied in civil cases. Fourth, the parameters of the exception are difficult, if not impossible to define.

The Court also discussed three policy reasons for requiring a timely objection:  (1) it discourages a party from sitting on its objection, in an effort to obtain a calculated benefit by raising it later; (2) it promotes the efficiency of judicial proceedings by rectifying errors as soon as possible and avoiding the need for a new trial; and (3) it promotes the sanctity of the jury verdict.

In the end, the Supreme Court quashed the Third District’s decision applying the “fundamental nature” exception and remanded to the district court with instructions that the case be returned to the trial court for entry of the original judgment in favor of Coba.