Tennessee Standard for Reversal of a Verdict Based on a Bad Jury Instruction

 An important component of any jury trial is the instructions that will be given to the jury about the law that applies to the particular case, how to analyze the evidence, and how to assess the credibility of witnesses. To avoid appeals on the basis of erroneous jury instructions, the best practice is for the parties to agree on the instructions given if at all possible.

When a party takes issue with a particular instruction and wishes to appeal on that basis, he or she faces an uphill battle in overturning the jury verdict in Tennessee. Under our Rules of Appellate Procedure, a jury verdict will only be reversed based on a trial court’s error in giving a jury instruction, failing to give a jury instruction, or giving an erroneous instruction if the error more probably than not affected the verdict or would result in prejudice to the judicial process. Tenn. R. A. P. 36(b).

Recently, in  Land v. Dixon, the Court of Appeals reiterated this standard. On appeal, the plaintiffs complained that the trial court erred in giving a comparative fault instruction to the jury because of allegations that the plaintiffs were at fault in a professional negligence case. The plaintiffs argued that under Tennessee law plaintiffs cannot be at fault in professional negligence actions.  (That is, shall we say, an imaginative argument.)

The Court of Appeals declined to decide whether plaintiffs can be comparatively at fault in professional negligence cases, and instead relied on Rule 36(b) of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure to dispose of the issue. The court found that the Jury never even reached the issue of plaintiffs’ alleged fault because the Jury returned a defense verdict finding the defendants 0% at fault. The Jury would only have reached the issue of plaintiffs’ negligence had they assigned some fault to the defendants. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the jury instruction on comparative fault did not affect the judgment and therefore was not grounds for reversal.