This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Trent Terry Gunsolus, et al.,
Wally William Santo, et al.,
Waseca County District Court
File No. C000510
William Lawrence Davidson, Lind, Jensen, Sullivan & Peterson, P.A., 150 South Fifth Street, Suite 1700, Minneapolis, MN 55402-3637 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Willis, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
TOUSSAINT, Chief Judge
Appellant Trent Terry Gunsolus challenges the district court’s denial of his motion for a new trial. Gunsolus argues that he is entitled to a new trial because (a) the jury’s award of zero damages was given under the influence of passion or prejudice and (b) the jury’s verdict regarding liability and damages was not justified by the evidence. Because there is sufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings, we affirm.
On January 25, 1999, appellant Trent Terry Gunsolus was traveling southbound on Waseca County Road #3 at between 55 and 66 miles per hour. The speed limit on that highway is 55 miles per hour, and there were patches of ice and packed snow on portions of the road. Gunsolus’s friend, Jason Cowdin, was driving about 200 to 300 yards behind Gunsolus. At the same time, respondent Wally Santo drove a tractor pulling a manure spreader on a minimum-maintenance roadway, moving westbound across county road #3 at between five and six miles per hour.
Gunsolus first saw Santo’s tractor when he was 150 to 200 yards from the intersection, but he did not slow down because he assumed that Santo would stop. Gunsolus continued to see Santo’s tractor as he approached the intersection, and approximately 150 feet before the intersection, Gunsolus realized that the tractor was not slowing or stopping. Gunsolus tried to brake, but he hit an unexpectedly slippery spot on the road and was unable to avoid colliding with the tractor.
Santo did not see Gunsolus’s white car before the collision because he was blinded by the sun. He did, however, see Cowdin’s dark maroon car approximately 200 yards away. Santo believed that he could safely cross the highway before Cowdin’s car approached, so he continued across the highway. Cowdin testified that if Gunsolus’s car had not been present, Santo would have had time to safely cross the intersection.
As a result of the collision, Gunsolus suffered a leg fracture, elbow laceration, and other bumps and bruises. His leg took nine months to heal, and he continued to have soreness and swelling through the time of the trial. Gunsolus contends that his injuries prevented him from wrestling in his final high school season and cut short his post-secondary wrestling career.
Gunsolus filed the present action in Waseca County District Court, and the case went to trial. During its deliberations, the jury wrote a note asking for the district court’s guidance on the damages portion of the special verdict form. The jury’s note read as follows:
If we were to assign 60% fault to [Santo] and 40% fault to [Gunsolus], can we say $0.00 to [the past damages question] and $0.00 to [the future damages question]?
We wish not to award any money to [Gunsolus]¾is this how we do it?
The district court advised both attorneys of the jury’s question and, in writing, instructed the jury to “review the jury instructions as presented.” The jury instructions noted that if the jurors would find that Gunsolus’s negligence was greater that 50%, then plaintiffs would receive no damages. Twenty minutes after the court’s reply, the jury returned a special verdict assigning 51% fault to Gunsolus and 49% fault to Santo. The jury awarded zero dollars in general damages to Gunsolus.
Gunsolus moved for a new trial, arguing that the verdict was palpably against the weight of the evidence and that the finding of zero damages was a result of the passion or prejudice of the jury. The district court denied his motion.
This appeal follows.
D E C I S I O N
An appellate court reviews a district court’s denial of a motion for a new trial under an abuse of discretion standard. Halla Nursery, Inc. v. Baumann-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990). On review, we will not set aside answers to special-verdict questions unless they are “perverse and palpably contrary to the evidence” or unless the evidence is so clear that there is no room for differences among reasonable people. Hanks v. Hubbard Broad., Inc., 493 N.W.2d 302, 309 (Minn. App. 1992) (citation omitted, review denied (Minn. Feb. 12, 1993). The Hanks court also held that
[t]he evidence must be viewed in a light most favorable to the jury verdict. If the jury’s special verdict finding can be reconciled on any theory, the verdict will not be disturbed.
Id. (citations omitted). Said another way, a jury’s verdict “will not be set aside unless the evidence against it is practically conclusive.” Ouellette by Ouellette v. Subak, 391 N.W.2d 810, 817 (Minn. 1986) (citation omitted).
A. Influence of Passion and Prejudice on the Jury.
Gunsolus first argues that the district court abused its discretion in denying his motion for a new trial, contending that the jury’s award of zero damages was insufficient as a matter of law because it was given under the influence of passion and prejudice. We disagree.
A district court may grant a new trial for “excessive or insufficient damages, appearing to have been given under the influence of passion or prejudice.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 59.01(e). But a district court’s decision whether to grant a new trial for insufficient damages will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of discretion. O’Neil v. Wells Concrete Prods. Co., 477 N.W.2d 534, 538 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. Jan. 17, 1992).
If a jury finds that a defendant does not bear liability, the award of no damages does not necessarily show prejudice. Wefel v. Norman, 296 Minn. 506, 508, 207 N.W.2d 340-41 (1973). A court may overturn a damage award that is less than the proved damages “unless the jury has also determined that there is no liability on the part of the defendant, and that finding is supported by credible evidence.” Radloff v. Jans, 428 N.W.2d 112, 115-16 (Minn. App. 1988), review denied (Minn. Oct. 26, 1988). Here, the jury found that Gunsolus bore more fault than Santo, thus relieving Santo from liability. Because the jury’s finding is supported by credible evidence, the district court was not compelled to find that the damage award was given under passion or prejudice.
Gunsolus’s contention that a jury must reasonably determine damages, regardless of the jury’s finding of fault, appears to be in opposition to Wefel, 296 Minn. at 508, 207 N.W.2d at 340. In that case, the jury held that plaintiffs were at fault, and it returned a verdict of no damages. Id. at 507, 207 N.W.2d at 341. In its review, the supreme court held that
where a jury has answered other questions so as to determine that there is no liability on the part of the defendant, which finding is supported by credible evidence, the denial of damages or granting of inadequate damages to the plaintiff does not necessarily show prejudice or render the verdict perverse.
Id. at 508, 207 N.W.2d at 341 (emphasis added) (quotation omitted). In that case, the supreme court specifically rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the denial of its motion for a new trial constituted an abuse of discretion. Rather, the Wefel court held that “[i]t is clear that the jury realized that their findings on liability rendered the damages question moot.” Hurr, 242 Minn. at 507, 207 N.W.2d at 341. The jury here could have reasonably reached the same conclusion.
Gunsolus also argues that the jury’s apparent reversal of its assignment of fault, and the speed in which it did so, reveals the influence of passion and prejudice. However, a review of the record reveals that the jury had sufficient time to weigh the evidence. See Metro Contracting, Inc. v. Oscar H. Kulseth Co., 294 Minn. 552-53, 202 N.W.2d 219, 219 (1972) (finding that the jury had sufficient time to deliberate). Further, a new trial shall not be granted if a court must speculate as to the possibility of the jury’s prejudice. Vadnais v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., 309 Minn. 97, 104, 243 N.W.2d 45, 49 (1976).
Gunsolus cites several cases involving insufficient determinations of damages, but he misapplies those cases in an attempt to support his argument that the jury incorrectly determined liability. See Pehrson v. Kistner, 301 Minn. 299, 300, 222 N.W.2d 334, 335 (1974) (noting that defendant’s actions were the sole cause of death); Walser v. Vinge, 275 Minn. 230, 233, 146 N.W.2d 537, 539 (1966) (involving “no serious question as to the issue of liability”); Hurr v. Johnston, 242 Minn. 329, 335, 65 N.W.2d 193, 196 (1954) (holding that because jury found for plaintiff, it was “unnecessary to further discuss the issue of defendant’s negligence”). The jury in each of the cited cases found that the defendant was more at fault. In contrast, the jury here ultimately found the plaintiff to be more at fault. In Hurr, the supreme court indicated that the plaintiffs “were either entitled to recover the actual special damages proved * * * or they were not entitled to recover at all.” Id. at 337, 65 N.W.2d at 197. Similarly, the jury here found that Gunsolus bore more fault than Santo, and it could reasonably have determined that Gunsolus was not entitled to recover at all.
Because the record contained evidence that the jury’s verdict was not influenced by passion or prejudice, the decision of the district court was not clearly erroneous.
B. Verdict Palpably Against the Weight of the Evidence.
Gunsolus next argues that the district court erred in denying his motion for a new trial because the jury’s verdict was palpably against the weight of the evidence. We disagree.
A new trial may be granted if “the verdict * * * is not justified by the evidence, or is contrary to law.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 59.01(g). A district court has broad discretion in determining whether it should grant a new trial. Halla Nursery v. Baumann-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990). This court has held that
[a]n appellate court will substitute its judgment for that of the jury only if there is no evidence reasonably tending to sustain the verdict or if the verdict is manifestly and palpably against the weight of the evidence.
Baker v. Amtrak Nat’l. R. Passenger Corp., 588 N.W.2d 749, 753 (Minn. App. 1999) (citation omitted).
Here, the record contains sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict that Gunsolus was more at fault than Santo. The jury was provided evidence that Gunsolus was speeding, that he was aware of patches of snow and ice on the highway, that he saw Santo’s tractor, and that the accident would not have occurred but for Gunsolus’s speeding. This evidence reasonably tends to sustain the jury’s finding that Gunsolus bore 51% of the fault.
Because there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict, and because the jury found that Gunsolus bore more fault than Santo, the district court’s denial of Gunsolus’s motion for a new trial was not clearly erroneous.