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Supreme Court Makes Pennsylvania an “Any-Majority Rule” State

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to toss out a verdict where the same 10 jurors did not agree on each special jury interrogatory. Fritz v. Hazel Wright et. al., 907 A.2d 1083 (Pa. 2006).

In Fritz, plaintiff sustained injuries when he fell on a driveway. He sued the property owner and the jury awarded the plaintiff damages. After the verdict was rendered, the defendants requested that the jury be polled. The jury was unanimous that the defendants were negligent, that the negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about the alleged harm and that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent. However, on the question of whether the plaintiff's negligent was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm, jurors 4 and 8 said yes while all the others said no. On the question of damages, all of the jurors except for jurors 4 and 9 agreed that the plaintiff should receive $53,000. Defendants moved for a mistrial, arguing that the verdict was improper because the same ten jurors did not agree to each of the jury questions.

The defendants appealed to the Superior Court which, in a divided decision, agreed with the defendants, vacated the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial. The Superior Court found that the term "verdict" as used in the Pennsylvania Constitution and 42 Pa.C.S. § 5104(b), consists of all of the answers to the jury interrogatories so that the verdict upon which five-sixths of the jurors must agree is comprised of the total verdict inclusive of each interrogatory response. An appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court followed.

The Supreme Court overruled the Superior Court. It held that a verdict is the decision of a jury reported to court on matters submitted to the jury at trial. A general verdict slip is one in which the jury is simply asked to find for the plaintiff or defendant. A general verdict slip with special findings asks the jury to answer individual questions in conjunction with the ultimate verdict question. The Court stated that the jury's decision is the general verdict and not the answers to the individual interrogatories, which are merely advisory. It also found that regardless of whether the jury is delivering a general verdict or general verdict with special findings, its deliberation will encompass all aspects of the case that are necessary to arrive at a decision.

The Court stated that if the Superior Court's reasoning were followed, the fortuitous fact that this verdict included special findings would permit counsel to delve into the otherwise sacrosanct jury deliberation process to ascertain disagreements among particular jurors or particular subparts of their discussions, whereas this would not be permitted if the verdict had been a general verdict without additional questions. The Court held that it sees no reason to permit invading the sanctity of the jury deliberations in the case of special findings where such invasion would not be permitted in the case of a general verdict without special findings.

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