Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff, a seaman, sued Defendant, a ship owner and Plaintiff’s former employer for back injuries Plaintiff allegedly suffered at work. The trial judge submitted written interrogatories and forms for a general verdict to the jury but later withdrew the written interrogatories. The jury returned a general verdict for Plaintiff and Defendant appealed.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Withdrawal of written interrogatories previously submitted to the jury is not an abuse of discretion when the purpose for doing so is to remedy the confusion created by an unclear and ambiguous question previously submitted. There was no violation of Rule 49 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because a confusing and poorly worded question is not a “material” question or one that is “necessary to reach a verdict.”
Issue. Is it an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to submit special interrogatories to the jury and then later withdraw all of the questions if the jury finds one of the questions confusing and the judge’s explanation of the question does not resolve the jury’s confusion?
Held. No. Judgment affirmed. Under Rule 49(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the judge may submit written interrogatories to the jury. It is an abuse of discretion for a trial judge to withdraw a question submitted to the jury that relate to “one or more issues of fact, the decision of which is necessary for a verdict” or to withdraw a question that is necessary to be decided for the plaintiff in order for the plaintiff to recover. The issue is whether the question submitted was clear and unambiguous in light of the language of the question and the judge’s subsequent explanation. Based on the record of the judge’s explanation and the question itself, and the fact that the jury still could not reach an agreement, the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in withdrawing the question and authorizing the jury to return a general verdict. The trial judge’s action would be reversible error only if this action prejudiced the defendant. The trial judge intended to defeat confusion created by an ambiguous question. An unclear and ambiguous question is not material to a fact issue or an issue necessary to reach a verdict. Therefore, it cannot prejudice one party over the other.
Discussion. The court’s opinion illustrates the trial judge’s discretion to resolve jury confusion regarding a special verdict when the question involved is ambiguous and confusing.