It seemed like everything went the way this plaintiff, a junior high school student who had been bullied mercilessly and repeatedly at school, could have wanted; in finding his school liable for what happened to him, the jury apparently credited his testimony detailing the litany of abuse he endured over the course of 3 years, which included the following:

  • “I was at the point of blacking out and he had mercy and let me go. I jumped up gasping for air … I ran to the office and notified them what happened.” That student was never disciplined;
  • He was shoved into lockers and walls and spit on;
  • Bullies urinated all over a prized hat his father had given him;
  • He was constantly called a “f****t,” a “p***y,” and a “c********r”; and, 
  • Students would flip his lunch tray, soaking him, and his cell phone.

Not surprisingly, the foregoing acts had a severe impact on this student's mental state, and his scholastic performance, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and social anxiety.

The jury clearly found plaintiff credible, that the school negligently failed to discharge its responsibilities to act reasonably in protecting him while he was under the school's care, and awarded him approximately $1 million.

Sounds like a great ending to an incredibly sad story, right?

Not so fast.

The Big, Fatal Mistake

In filling out the questionnaire provided on the verdict form provided by the Court, the jury's answers to two of the questions were inherently inconsistent with each other; while they said that the student's own negligence was not a substantial factor in causing his injuries, in the following question they answered that the infant was 30% at fault for the injuries he sustained.

The trial judge realized the mistake, but by that time it was too late; the jury had already disbanded and left the courthouse.

In rendering its decision, the Appellate Court stated as follows:

“The taking of this verdict was fatally flawed ... Pursuant to CPLR 4111 (c), when the answers on a verdict sheet ‘are inconsistent with each other and one or more is inconsistent with the general verdict, the court shall require the jury to further consider its answers and verdict or it shall order a new trial ...

“The jury’s consideration of question No. 5 was inconsistent with its answer to question No. 4 and should have been brought to the jury’s attention with a curative charge, followed by a return to deliberations to resolve the inconsistency ... However, because the jury had already been discharged, this was not possible and Supreme Court’s consultation with the jury foreperson alone, although done in open court, could not take the place of full jury reconsideration.

“In essence, the window of opportunity for Supreme Court to fix the problem closed when the other jurors left the courthouse. Supreme Court’s subsequent efforts, while well intentioned, were futile and, given this timeline, our only course of action is to order a new trial.”

What Happens Now

Sadly, this plaintiff will have to endure another trial, re-living the trauma and unpleasantness of those memories. It will also cost a great deal of time and money to do so.

Jonathan Cooper
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Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer
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