Jury instruction regarding passenger and car accident leads to new trial

The loss of a loved one due to the negligence of another party is tragic. While nothing can make up for such a loss, a wrongful death suit may be one method of holding the responsible parties accountable.

However, court proceedings in such cases can be quite complex, and require a skilled advocate to navigate to a just result. Even a judge's single erroneous instruction to a jury can lead to a bad decision and the need for a new trial. The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals

case of Nault v. Board of County Commissioners of Canadian County provides an example.

A tragic car accident

The victim was a passenger in a car being driven by his friend on a rural Canadian County road. The driver lost control of the vehicle, and rolled. The passenger was thrown from the car and died at the scene.

The victim's family brought a wrongful death action against the county arguing that warning and speed limit signs should have been posted. During the trial, the judge instructed the jury on the passenger's duty to use ordinary care for his or her own safety, including cautioning the driver regarding his or her manner of driving.

The jury returned a verdict for the county. The family immediately requested a new trial on the basis that the trial court had erred by instructing the jury on the victim's alleged comparative negligence when neither party had introduced any evidence on that matter. The trial court agreed and granted a new trial. The county appealed this ruling.

Was a new trial warranted?

At the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, the county argued that the trial court was required under the law to instruct the jury on the comparative negligence of the passenger. However, the appeals court disagreed.

Here, the county had introduced neither direct evidence of passenger negligence nor even circumstantial evidence from which one might infer the passenger had been negligent. The county also introduced no evidence of any conditions on the road that warranted a heightened level of responsibility on the passenger or a change of condition that would have placed the passenger on alert prior to the car accident.

The best witnesses to what happened inside the vehicle prior to the accident were the driver and the passenger-victim. The driver was not called as a witness, and the victim was killed. In this situation where there was no evidence regarding what happened inside the vehicle prior to the accident, any inference of negligence was purely speculative and did not justify the jury instruction on passenger negligence.

Thus, the trial court had erred in offering that jury instruction and a new trial was properly granted to the victim's family.

Navigating the legal complexities

If a car or other accident has taken your loved one away from you, you should seek help from an experienced attorney who can offer practical counsel and guidance, while navigating the complexities of a wrongful death lawsuit. Choose an attorney who will help you closely examine the causes behind the accident that took the life of your loved one in order to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.