If there’s a serious error of law or ethics during a trial, it’s important that it be corrected. Unfortunately, sometimes correcting it means throwing out the trial and starting over. That was the conclusion of the Rhode Island Supreme Court in Gomes v. Rosario, in which the court upheld an order for a new trial. It found that the jury didn’t understand its instructions, or the instructions were improperly given, when it found for Mario Rosario in the auto accident lawsuit brought against him by Eloisa Gomes. After reviewing the testimony, the trial court agreed with Gomes that the jury did not understand its instructions, in part because the testimony appeared to establish some liability. The state Supreme Court agreed.
Gomes was a certified nursing assistant driving between patients, traveling north on Pine Street in Pawtucket, RI. Rosario was traveling east on Marrin Street. The intersection had a traffic light, which witnesses testified was red for Rosario. Gomes said she was driving through the intersection when Rosario hit the front of her car, spinning it around and causing a second impact on the left. Witnesses agreed that Rosario ran the red light but differed on where the damage was and how fast both were going. The police report showed damage to the fronts of both vehicles; police ultimately cited Rosario for running a red light. Rosario said he was going slowly toward a green light and that Gomes was speeding, and that he didn’t contest the ticket because he wanted to get it over with. After hearing all this, the jury concluded that Gomes hadn’t proven that Rosario was negligent. Gomes moved for a new trial, saying the verdict didn’t comport with the evidence. The trial justice granted it, saying the jury couldn’t have understood the instructions.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld that ruling. The decision of a trial justice to grant a new trial is given great weight, the court noted, and will not be overturned unless the petitioner can show that the trial justice was clearly wrong in some way. In this decision, the trial justice weighed the evidence brought by both parties and assessed the credibility of the witnesses. Both witnesses were credible and not biased toward either party, the court said. Each of the parties themselves had an interest, the court noted, and said things that could reduce their credibility. And the justice gave some weight to the uncontested citation against Rosario for running a red light. Rosario argued that the trial justice weighted the evidence wrongly and overlooked other evidence, but the high court disagreed. The trial justice relied heavily on the witness accounts that matched that of Gomes. Thus, it declined to second-guess the trial justice.
It’s not often that a trial court grants a new trial in a personal injury lawsuit—so when it does, appeals courts tend to listen. In this case, it’s easy to see why the court concluded that the jury didn’t understand the instructions; the available evidence suggests strongly that Rosario ran a red light, making him at fault for the crash. Even if the jury disagrees, a trial court is generally free to disregard the verdict if it’s against the weight of the evidence. In my practice as a motor vehicle accident lawyer in St. Louis, I concentrate first and foremost on making sure the jury understands the case and what’s at stake for my clients. But if a puzzling verdict does come in, I’m not afraid to ask for a new trial on this basis.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents personal injury clients across Missouri and southern Illinois. If you’ve been hit by a driver who made bad decisions and you’d like to talk to us about your rights and your options, call us today for a free consultation at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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