When Divine Intervention is Necessary to Read the Jury’s Mind, a New Trial is Warranted

May 17, 2013 | Erika Eckley

The plaintiff, a church in Cedar Rapids, sought coverage under its property insurance for an incident that occurred during the 2008 flooding of the Cedar River. Just before the flood waters reached the church, the sewer backed up and flooded the church’s basement. The church sought coverage for the sewer backup under its property insurance policy. The church had no flood insurance and the property insurance policy did not cover damages from floods. After investigating the claim, the insurance company denied the claim contending the damages were caused by the flood. The matter went to trial.

At trial, the jury was asked to complete a special verdict form regarding the question of whether the cause of the damage to the church’s basement was the flood rather than a sewer backup not related to the flood. The jury returned a verdict finding the damage was from the sewer backing up as a result of the flooding. This finding meant the incident was not covered event. The jury, however, also completed every line on the verdict form and concluded that the church sustained more than $240,000 in damages. The church argued that the jury’s award of damages to the church despite finding that the damage was caused by an event not covered under the policy created an irreconcilable inconsistency. The trial court disagreed and entered judgment for the defendant. The church appealed.

On review, the Court of Appeals agreed with the church. When two answers by the jury on a verdict form would result in two different judgments, the court held the answers are inconsistent and cannot stand. The appellate court stated that the district court’s reasoning was logical, but required speculation to reconcile the inconsistent answers, so the court was in error.

The entire issue, however, could have been prevented if the verdict form had instructed the jury that if it found that the cause of the damage was from the flood, then the jury need not answer the question of damages. Because the verdict form was silent in this regard and interpreting the jury’s answer would require speculation, the court reversed the judgment for the insurance company and remanded for a new trial. Lifeline Ministries Church v. Church Mutual Insurance Co., No. 3-139/12-1181, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS ____ (Iowa Ct. App. May 15, 2013).