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Appellate Court Remands Case for Improper Jury Instructions

Elizabeth DiNardo, Esq. | Associate Counsel

highway-3871353_960_720On July 11, 2019, a California state appeals court found that a jury had heard erroneous instructions involving a plaintiff who hit a freeway barrier to avoid an errant flying mattress. The appellate panel found that the lower court erred in permitting a special exception that “excuses law violations if a defendant can prove it tried but could not comply with the law.”

Plaintiff Mackenzie Baker-Smith was driving on the highway when suddenly a mattress came loose from the car in front of her. She swerved to avoid the mattress and subsequently hit the guardrail. Dror Skolnick, the driver of the vehicle and owner of G&L Design Building & Landscape (“G&L”), allegedly claimed there “may be” a mattress in the trailer upon questioning following the incident. At trial, the court found Defendant not to be negligent. However, the instructions, statements and questions posed to the jury made for ambiguous reasoning in the decision.

In the instant ruling, Judge John Shepard Wiley Jr. took into account the three California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) posed to the jury pre-deliberations: CACI 418, CACI 420 and CACI 400. The focus of Judge Wiley’s decision came from CACI 420 - the “excuse instruction” mentioned earlier. The court administered a special verdict form in which it posed several questions to determine if G&L was negligent.

The special verdict form inquired whether “Dror Skolnick/G&L…[was] negligent?” to which the jury answered “no,” meaning the verdict was sealed. This question, however, created complete ambiguity as to why the jury answered in the negative. The Appellate Court questioned whether the jury believed there was no mattress at all or that Skolnick had made a valid excuse? “It’s impossible to say,” said Judge Wiley in his Opinion.

The panel found that the plaintiff correctly challenged the CACI 420 excuse instruction, as the case did not warrant this, or any, excuse instruction. There was no evidence Defendant used reasonable care to ensure there was no mattress in the trailer. The only evidence of the defendant taking steps to ensure this was having his coworker check the trailer, which still shows no evidence that Defendant was unable to obey the Vehicle Code.

The panel ultimately reversed and remanded the case for a new trial, all concurring. Judge Wiley made note that any new jury instructions cannot include any excuse instructions, and that the new form should include a question asking whether Skolnick and G&L broke the law by not securing the cargo.

The case is: Baker-Smith v. Skolnick et al., Case No.: B282946, in the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District.

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