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Olson v. Alexandria Independent School District #206

June 08, 2004

JAMES OLSON, ET AL., RESPONDENTS,
v.
ALEXANDRIA INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT #206, APPELLANT.



Douglas County District Court File No. CX-01-1206.

Considered and decided by Minge , Presiding Judge, Shumaker , Judge, and Crippen , Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

This court must affirm a trial court's exercise of its broad discretion in reconciling inconsistent jury answers when the court reasonably assesses the indications of jury intentions and the reconciliation is consistent with fair inferences of the evidence.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Crippen, Judge

Affirmed

Crippen, Judge*fn1

Dissenting, Shumaker, Judge

OPINION

A jury found (special verdict question #3) that appellant school district was negligent, but (question #4) that this negligence was not the direct cause of any injury to Jamie Olson, whose claims were pursued by respondents, his parents. But the jury also found (question #5) that $15,000 would compensate Jamie for "damages directly caused by the conduct of [appellant]." Appellant contends that these responses are consistent, and that the jury determined the amount of damages only because it was compelled to do so by the trial court's instructions.

The trial court concluded that the jury answers were inconsistent but that they could be reconciled by entering judgment in favor of respondents in the amount of $15,000. The court first observed that verdict question #4, on direct cause, dealt with "injury," that question #5 spoke of "damages," and that question #5 specifically included the category of "[p]ain, embarrassment and emotional distress," the category chosen by the jury when it inserted the figure of $15,000. Both questions used causation language.

The court then noted that its instructions broadly referred to damages and discussed liability and damages only with use of the term injury. The court reasoned that "there was a genuine opportunity for misunderstanding" on the part of the jury - its belief that damages (question #5) included all harm, specifically including pain, embarrassment, and emotional distress, and that injury (question #4) did not deal with those topics.

In fact, the court determined, it was "more reasonable" to find that this confusion occurred than to think that the jury simultaneously found that respondent "did and did not directly cause an injury." As a result, the court concluded that question #5 was seen to regard liability for pain and distress that occurred shortly after Jamie was assaulted by other students, but that the jury's answer to question #4 dealt with injuries Jamie ultimately suffered after the assault. Because this trial court analysis is sufficiently reasonable, it did not constitute an abuse of discretion and must be affirmed.

FACTS

On May 24, 2000, two middle school fellow students assaulted 15-year-old Jamie Olson in the gymnasium locker room. Jamie has below-average mental functioning and suffers from attention deficit disorder. Prior to this incident, Jamie's mother talked to his school case manager on several occasions about her concerns that Jamie was being harassed at school because he was in special education classes.

After the assault, Jamie had contacts with the gym teacher, a health paraprofessional, and an assistant principal. The assistant principal took disciplinary action on the two boys involved in the incident, but respondents were not contacted, and there is testimony supporting their claim that Jamie's requests to contact his mother were inappropriately neglected.

Jamie reported to his third hour class, which was also attended by one of the students involved in the locker room incident. The teacher had not been informed of the event. During class, this student made faces at Jamie that made him feel nervous and scared. Jamie testified that people were making fun of him for the rest of the day, ...


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