Wantonness – Failure to Object to Jury Instructions – Inconsistent Verdict

T & J White, LLC, etc. v. Williams, [Ms. SC-2022-0480, Nov. 10, 2022] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2022). The Court (Sellers, J.; Shaw, Wise, Mendheim, and Stewart, JJ., concur; Parker, C.J., concurs in part and dissents in part, which Bolin, Bryan, and Mitchell, JJ., join) affirms the Jefferson Circuit Court’s judgment on a jury verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages in a motor vehicle collision case. In rejecting defendants’ challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence of wantonness, the Court holds

Here, evidence was presented indicating that defendant [Bobby] Morse saw the traffic light, which was either yellow or red, saw Williams’s car slowing at that light, and yet pressed the accelerator of his vehicle. This case is unlike the cases that the defendants have cited, which involved merely inadvertence or ill-advised attempts to dodge other vehicles. Here, there was substantial evidence showing that Morse accelerated toward Williams’s vehicle, thus raising the question whether Marsh acted consciously and intentionally. This Court has noted that “‘[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge .…’” O’Rear v. B.H., 69 So. 3d 106, 115 (Ala. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)).”

Ms. *7.

While the Court noted that Defendant Morse was on his cell phone at the time of the collision, Ms. *2, the Court did not discuss cell-phone usage as a factor in analyzing the evidence of wantonness.

The jury awarded plaintiff compensatory damages of $500,000 for negligence and $250,000 in compensatory damages for wantonness. While reiterating settled law that “an award of compensatory damages for both negligence and wantonness relating to a single act is inconsistent,” Ms. *8, the Court concludes the defendants failed to object to jury instructions that invited the inconsistent verdict. Ms. **9-10. The Court holds:

As the defendants note in their reply brief, Rule 51 [Ala. R. Civ. P.] requires predeliberation objections in order to give the trial court “‘an opportunity to correct any error in its charge before it becomes error with injury to reversal.’” Ware v. Timmons, 954 So. 2d 545, 559 (Ala. 2006) (quoting Coleman v. Taber, 572 So. 2d 399, 402 (Ala. 1990)). Additionally, “[a] party may not … await the jury’s verdict before challenging an instruction that invites an inconsistency.” BIC Corp. [v. Bean], 669 So. 2d [840,] 844 [(Ala. 1995)]. If the defendants wanted to preserve a claim of error for appeal, the proper action was to object to the purported error, not promise to do so if the jury rendered an unfavorable verdict. Likewise, the defendants’ counsel’s “clarification” statement is not an objection under Rule 51. As noted, Rule 51 requires three things: (1) that the objection be made before the jury retires, (2) that the objector make a statement of the matter objected to, and (3) that the objector provide the grounds for the objection. It would require significant squinting to see “just [a] clarification” as an objection.

Ms. **10-11. The Court also rejects the contention that an objection to the charge was unnecessary because the verdict was substantively inconsistent and explains, “[t]he fact remains that the defendants did not properly object to the instructions that they themselves say gave rise to the inconsistency. Those instructions became the law of the case, and the jurors acted accordingly.” Ms. *17. The Court “recommend(s) that the APJI be amended to include an instruction on the mutual exclusivity” of negligence and wantonness. Ms. *17, n. 1.

Chief Justice Parker’s dissent, joined by Justices Bolin, Bryan, and Mitchell, “concur(s) with the main opinion as to the sufficiency of the evidence of wantonness,” but opines:

The preservation requirement of Rule 51 is not a game of magic words or stilted technicalities.... Here, during the time for objecting to jury instructions, the defendants’ counsel communicated to the judge his (legally correct) concern that, under the instructions given, the jury might inconsistently find both negligence and wantonness; counsel said he “want[ed] to make sure” that did not happen, and he received a ruling on that objection. Accordingly, the issue was preserved, and I would reverse the judgment based on the inconsistent verdict.

Ms. *26 (Parker, C. J., dissenting).

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