This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).






Gene Zemlicka,


McLeod County, et al.,


Filed March 15, 2005


Minge, Judge


McLeod County District Court

File No. C7-02-001000



Keith D. Johnson, Keith D. Johnson, P.L.L.C., Barristers Trust Building, 247 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55415 (for appellant)


Mark S. Brown, Iverson Reuvers, LLC, 9321 Ensign Avenue South, Bloomington, MN 55438 (for respondents)


            Considered and decided by Minge, Presiding Judge; Wright, Judge; and Crippen Judge.*

  U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N


MINGE, Judge


Appellant challenges the district court’s denial of his motion for a new trial after a jury found that respondent was negligent in the operation of his vehicle, but that his negligence was not a direct cause of the accident between appellant and respondent.  Because we conclude that the jury’s findings were not contrary to the evidence and the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying appellant’s motion for a new trial, we affirm.



Appellant Gene Zemlicka brought an action to recover from respondents deputy sheriff Matthew Schuster and McLeod County for injuries sustained by the appellant when a collision occurred between appellant’s snowmobile and Schuster’s squad car on March 9, 2001, at approximately 1:50 a.m.  The parties agreed to use a special verdict form, which was submitted to the jury.  Using this form, the jury found Schuster negligent in the operation of his vehicle, but in a separate answer found that Schuster’s negligence was not a direct cause of the collision.  The jury both found that the appellant was negligent in the operation of his snowmobile and that his negligence was a direct cause of the collision.  Appellant brought a motion for a new trial.  In the memorandum attached to the district court’s order denying the motion for a new trial, the district court stated:

This Court will not presume to know the jury’s reasoning behind [its answer that Schuster was negligent] on the verdict form.  Neither will this Court make the conclusion, as [appellant] is arguing, that the jury found Deputy Schuster negligent because he was driving without his headlights on.  He was found negligent in the operation of his vehicle.  [Appellant’s] arguments revolve around questions of fact arising from the incident.  The jury decided these questions of fact and this Court finds the verdict consistent with the evidence presented to the jury.


Appellant requests review.   



            The decision to grant or deny a new trial lies “within the sound discretion of the trial court, and will not be disturbed absent a clear abuse of that discretion.”  Halla Nursery, Inc. v. Baumann-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990).  On appeal from a denial of a motion for a new trial, this court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and will affirm unless the verdict is manifestly and palpably contrary to the evidence.  ZumBerge v. N. States Power Co., 481 N.W.2d 103, 110 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Apr. 29, 1992). 

A jury’s answer to a special-verdict question “can be set aside only if no reasonable mind could find as did the jury.”  Domtar, Inc. v. Niagara Fire Ins. Co., 563 N.W.2d 724, 734 (Minn. 1997); Hughes v. Sinclair Mktg., Inc., 389 N.W.2d 194, 198 (Minn. 1986) (stating jury verdict will be sustained on any reasonable theory based on the evidence).  On review, we will not set aside answers to special-verdict questions “unless they are perverse and palpably contrary to the evidence or where the evidence is so clear to leave no room for differences among reasonable people.”  Hanks v. Hubbard Broad., Inc., 493 N.W.2d 302, 309 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Feb. 12, 1993).  “The 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).

Appellant contends that the jury’s finding that Schuster was negligent in operating his vehicle could only mean that the jury concluded that Schuster was driving without his headlights on.  The district court specifically rejected this assertion.  A district court is in a better position to weigh the evidence and assess whether the evidence justifies the verdict.  Clifford v. Geritom Med, Inc., 681 N.W.2d 680, 687 (Minn. 2004).  In some situations, appellate courts have presumed that a jury found a party negligent based on the primary reason that the other party argued at trial.  See, e.g., id. at 687-88; Reese v. Henke, 277 Minn. 151, 156, 152 N.W.2d 63, 67 (1967).  In these cases, it appears that there were a limited number of theories to support a finding of negligence.  See, e.g., Clifford, 681 N.W.2d at 687-88.  Although appellant focuses on the fact question of whether Schuster had his headlights on, it does not appear that the jury could not have found that another aspect of Schuster’s conduct was negligent.  See Hanks, 493 N.W.2d at 309.

Proximate cause is a fact issue ordinarily left to the jury and its decision will stand unless, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, the decision is manifestly and palpably contrary to the evidence as a whole.  Vanderweyst v. Langford, 303 Minn. 575, 576, 228 N.W.2d 271, 272 (1975).  When a jury finds that a party’s negligence was not a cause of the injury, the court will often examine whether the injured party would have been harmed under those circumstances even if the other party had exercised reasonable care.  Clifford, 681 N.W.2d at 688.  Minnesota courts have often refused to overturn jury findings of negligence combined with a finding of no causation.  See, e.g., Thorn v. Glass Depot, 373 N.W.2d 799, 801-02 (Minn. App. 1985), review denied (Minn. Nov. 1, 1985); Vanderweyst, 303 Minn. at 575-76, 228 N.W.2d at 271-72.  In Thorn, a plaintiff who had been drinking was walking along the side of a highway when he was struck by a truck that had swerved to avoid plaintiff’s stalled vehicle.  373 N.W.2d 799, 801-02 (Minn. 1985).  The court refused to substitute its judgment for that of the jury, stating that there were a number of possible explanations for the jury’s conclusion.  Id. at 804.  In Vanderweyst, a head-on collision occurred between two cars on a one-lane bridge and both parties were found negligent, but only the plaintiff’s negligence was found to be a direct cause of the accident.  303 Minn. at 575-76, 228 N.W.2d at 271-72.  The Vanderweyst court held that the jury could have found that although the defendant braked improperly or was traveling too fast, the plaintiff’s negligence alone caused the collision.  Id.   

            In the case before us, the jury could have determined that appellant’s later negligent conduct would have caused the accident even absent the negligent conduct of Schuster.  For example, the jury could have decided that Schuster turned his headlights on as he crested the hill.  This would be consistent with the testimony of one of the snowmobilers that Schuster’s headlights were on when he passed his snowmobile and with Schuster’s testimony that when he crested the hill he was even with the last snowmobile.  In this scenario, Schuster’s negligence would not be the direct cause of the accident because Schuster’s lights, whether on or off, would not have been visible before cresting the hill and appellant’s negligence of not stopping at the road or crossing at a 90-degree angle would still be the direct cause of the accident.  Or, the jury could have believed that Schuster was negligent in not slowing down when he saw that appellant was angling toward the road or when he lost sight of the snowmobiles.  The jury could also have found Schuster was negligent in not alerting the snowmobiles to his presence by turning on his overhead lights and siren.  We do not need to determine which analysis is correct.  The point is that there are explanations for the jury’s conclusion that although Schuster was negligent, his negligence was not the direct cause of the accident.  Therefore, we conclude that the jury’s finding that Schuster’s negligence was not a direct cause of the injury was not palpably contrary to the evidence.  


* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.