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Is a case overturned due to confusing special interrogatories still relevant under rule change?

In, Doe v. Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hosp., 2019 IL App (1st) 180955, plaintiff filed suit for emotional injuries after a former hospital employee mailed the plaintiff a harassing letter that contained vile, personal statements related to private information in the plaintiff’s mental health records. She alleged that – before it fired the employee – the hospital failed to properly train the employee, supervise the employee, and monitor the employee’s use of records, which was more than the minimum necessary to complete her assigned billing tasks. The hospital denied the woman’s allegations, saying the former employee was solely responsible for the injuries.

At trial, the defense submitted to the jury a special interrogatory asking if the former employee was the “sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries” which they answered in the affirmative. The initial jury awarded was $1 million in damages in favor of the plaintiff. After the verdict, the court determined that the verdict was inconsistent with the jury’s answer to the special interrogatory and, therefore, entered judgment for the hospital. Under the new rules, the court can now direct the jury to further consider its answers and verdict if the general verdict and special interrogatory answer are inconsistent. If the jury cannot reconcile them, the court shall order a new trial. Further, the court could have chosen to not even allow the defense to submit a special interrogatory.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the special interrogatory was improper because the case was not about sole proximate cause. The plaintiff also argued that the special interrogatory was ambiguous and confusing. The plaintiff noted that the trial court refused a jury instruction on the issue of sole proximate cause and did not specifically define the term sole proximate cause.

The appellate court found that the general verdict was unquestionably inconsistent with the special interrogatory answer. However, the special interrogatory was confusing and ambiguous in the context of all of the jury instructions. The appellate court ordered a new trial. 

Under the new rule, 735 ILCS 5/2-1108, Doe may not have been appealed. As of January 2020, the new law amends the code of Civil Procedure and gives trial court judges the discretion to grant requests for special interrogatories. Previously, if a jury’s answer to a special interrogatory question conflicted with its general verdict, as was the case in Doe, then the special finding would supersede the verdict. Although the new law does not eliminate special interrogatories entirely it gives the court the discretion to grant the request for them and it gives attorneys the right to explain to the jurors what may result if the general verdict is inconsistent with any special finding which will likely make it for jurors to understand fundamental legal questions presented in certain negligence and causation cases. 

Special interrogatories were an important tool that helped juries decided the facts necessary to support a verdict. They were especially useful in places where there are holes in the jury instructions. Where in the absence of a special interrogatory, the jury is not going to be properly instructed on the legal issues it’s supposed to address. The Doe case is a perfect example of a hole in the jury instructions where the use of a special interrogatory could be used to assist the jury in rendering fault. The special interrogatory on sole proximate cause enabled the Hospital to get the jury to consider whose conduct solely caused plaintiff’s injuries. Although the appellate court determined the special interrogatories confusing and ambiguous, one can see how important it was for the jury to determine who was solely at fault for the verdict rendered. 

It is too early to tell whether special interrogatories will become obsolete, but it is clear that the power behind them is now minimized.