Citation. Wassell v. Adams, 865 F.2d 849 (7th Cir. Ill. Jan. 5, 1989)
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Brief Fact Summary.
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that the Adamses (Defendants) were negligent and that their negligence was the proximate cause of the assault on Susan Wassell (Plaintiff). The court of appeals affirmed.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A new trial can be granted only when the jury’s verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, and the court of appeals can reverse only when persuaded that in applying this standard, the district judge abused his discretion
Plaintiff traveled to an area just north of Chicago, Illinois to attend a graduation at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. She was staying at a motel, owned by Defendants, when she was awakened late at night by a knock on the door. Outside was a man she didn’t know, who, after some confusion, asked for a glass of water. Plaintiff allowed the man inside the room, and he sexually assaulted her. Plaintiff managed to escape, but the rapist was never prosecuted. A suspect was apprehended, but Plaintiff was too upset to provide proper identification. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Plaintiff brought suit against the Defendants alleging negligence in their failure to warn her of the dangerous conditions of the neighborhood in which the motel was located. A jury found the Defendants to be negligent, and their negligence was the proximate cause of Plaintiff’s assault. However the jury also found that Plaintiff had been negligent as well, apportioning blame 97% to Pl
aintiff, and 3% to Defendants. The court of appeals, in dicta, disagreed with the jury’s apportionment, but declined to reverse. It held that the issue of apportionment was one of fact and thus properly within the purview of the jury.
Did the court err in allowing the jury’s determination to stand, that Plaintiff’s negligence was a relevant, contributory factor to the circumstances that resulted in her injuries and denying her Motion for a New Trial?
* Did the trial court abuse its discretion in determining that the jury’s verdict was not against the clear weight of the evidence?
The question of apportionment of blame was properly one for the jury, as the latter was the trier of fact. The court of appeals would only be justified in negating such apportionment if there was an abuse of discretion on the part of the trial judge.
* The trial judge did not abuse his discretion in refusing to set aside the verdict.
According to the Restatement of Torts Section: 463, contributory negligence is “conduct on the part of the plaintiff which falls below the standard of conduct to which he should conform for his own protection, and which is a legally contributing cause . . . in bringing about the plaintiff’s harm.”
* The court also clearly enunciated the rule by which it is proper to set aside a jury verdict: “[t]he federal standard is that a new trial can be granted only when the jury’s verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, and the court of appeals can reverse only when persuaded that in applying this standard the district judge abused his discretion.”