An Indiana state appeals court has overturned a jury verdict, finding that the trial judge erred when he refused the read the plaintiffs’ proposed jury instruction involving the release form that they signed on behalf of their son.
Specifically, the trial judge failed to note that the “release form did not contain any specific or explicit reference to the negligence of the defendants,” acts that could have eviscerated the ability of the release form to shield the defendant. So while the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decisions regarding other elements of the case, the plaintiffs will get a new trial based on the failed jury instruction.
The incident occurred on July 31, 2001. Travis Stowers was a 17-year-old incoming junior on the Clinton Central High School football team, who was struggling physically under a warm Indiana summer sun. The court went on to paint a picture of a coaching staff that recognized the danger of the heat and took steps to prevent any potential tragedies on the football field by encouraging the players to drink water whenever they needed to and to advise the coaching staff if they did not feel well.
Following the protocol, Stowers advised the coaching staff that he felt ill during the afternoon practice on the day in question and proceeded to the water station. There, Stowers collapsed. The coaching staff assisted the player in removing his helmet and shoulder pads and in loading him on a golf cart to take him to the locker room. In the locker room, the coaching staff placed Stowers in a cool shower and placed ice around him. The coach called 911, and Stowers was taken away by ambulance. Stowers lost consciousness in the locker room, which he never regained, and he died around 4 a.m. the following day.
Less than a year later, Stowers’ parents filed a complaint against Clinton Central alleging that Clinton Central had acted negligently and proximately caused Travis’s death. A jury trial was ultimately held. And at its conclusion, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Clinton Central. The Stowers filed a motion “to correct errors” and which was denied by the trial court. They then appealed.
The Stowers’ appeal centered on their belief that Clinton Central was negligent as a matter of law and that the trial court erred by not granting the plaintiffs pre-trial motion to that effect. The appeals court disagreed, finding that a genuine issue of material fact exists on that matter.
Similarly, the appeals court also found questions about whether Clinton Central’s affirmative defense of contributory negligence was legitimate, finding that the trial court acted appropriate in denying the plaintiffs’ argument on that point as well.
In addition, the appeals court affirmed other holdings by the trial court before addressing the one area of the judge’s ruling that was flawed.
“The Stowers contend that the trial court erred when it refused to give their proposed jury instruction regarding the Release Forms. At the close of evidence, the Stowers offered a final instruction, which they asserted set forth the applicable standard of law to be applied when considering the Release Forms. The instruction stated:
“As a matter of law, the Plaintiffs Alan and Sherry Stowers have not released the Defendant Clinton Central from any alleged negligent acts when the release forms at issue contain language expressly addressing the risks inherent in the sport of football and other vigorous physical activity, but nowhere expressly state the release of Clinton Central or its agents from their own negligence.”
The trial court refused to give the proposed instruction, which the Stowers argued “should have been given because it would have defined the scope of the Release Forms and provided guidance to the jury on how to consider the documents.”
The appeals court agreed, writing that “the substantial rights of the Stowers were prejudiced by the failure to give the instruction because the admission of the Release Forms without the redaction of the language regarding release could have been exceptionally prejudicial to the Stowers. A jury reading the Release Forms without a limiting instruction might conclude that the Stowers released Clinton Central of liability when the trial court had already determined that they had not as a matter of law in the summary judgment order. We conclude that the trial court abused its discretion when it refused to give the Stowers’ proposed instruction regarding the Release Forms. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial and instruct the trial court to give an instruction stating the correct law regarding the Release Forms.”
Alan Stowers et al. v. Clinton Central School Corporation; Ct. App.Ind.; No. 49A02-0504-CV-288, 855 N.E.2d 739; 2006 Ind. App. LEXIS 2151; 10/28/06
Attorneys of Record: (for appellant) D. Bruce Kehoe, Christopher G. Stevenson of Wilson Kehoe & Winingham, Indianapolis, Indiana. (for appellee) Darla S. Brown, William H. Kelley of Kelley, Belcher & Brown, Bloomington, Indiana.