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Can a Jury Rule for a Plaintiff but Award Zero Damages?

In civil cases, such as personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits, a jury must determine the defendant’s liability and what damages, if any, are owed the plaintiff. Juries must reach a unanimous verdict on both issues. And while unanimity may require a certain level of bargaining among jurors, there are cases where a “compromise verdict” must be rejected by trial judges and appellate courts. In particular, a court will not allow a jury to hold a defendant liable while deliberately awarding “inadequate damages” to compensate a plaintiff.

A federal appeals court in Atlanta recently ordered a new trial in a negligence lawsuit because of just such a compromise verdict. The appellate panel found the trial judge improperly instructed the jury, which in turn led to a verdict where the plaintiff “won” but received zero damages.

Collins v. Marriott International, Inc.

In 2007, four men were staying at a private golf resort in the Bahamas. One evening, the group visited a rock cliff adjacent to (but not owned by) the club. One of the men became separated from the group and, in all likelihood, fell from the cliff to his death. The next day his body was found in the water about two miles away.

The deceased man’s estate subsequently sued the club’s owner for negligence. The estate argued the club failed to maintain the property, failed to warn guests about dangerous conditions and failed to prevent guests from accessing the cliff. The case was tried before a federal jury in Florida.

After several hours of deliberations, the jury informed the judge it was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The jury asked if it could find the club liable without awarding damages. The judge replied, “You must find whatever is fair and reasonable in light of the evidence.” A few minutes later, the jury returned with a verdict finding the club liable and awarding $0 in damages. The judge then set aside the liability verdict and granted the club judgment as a matter of law.

The estate appealed. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees federal courts in Florida and Georgia, reversed the trial court’s judgment and ordered a new trial. The appeals court said the jury’s zero-damages award was “drastically deficient” given the evidence submitted by the estate. The estate sought over $10 million in damages based on the economic losses incurred by the deceased and his family. While the jury was certainly not required to award that much, and while it could find the club was only partially liable for the victim’s death, it could not find the defendant liable and award no damages at all.

The appeals court further rebuked the trial judge for poorly instructing the jury. The judge failed to properly explain the legal duties the club owed to the victim with respect to safety conditions on its property, which included the accessibility of the cliff from the club. The trial judge, according to the appeals court, only focused on the existence of the club’s “duty to warn” the victim about potentially unsafe conditions.