Sollin v. Wangler
627 N.W.2d 159 (N.D. 2001)

  • Wangler was loading a large bale of hay into a grinder. Sollin was operating the grinder directly below Wangler. Wangler dropped the bale on Sollin, who was injured and sued.
    • Wangler argued that Sollin was contributorily negligent since he shouldn’t have been standing directly under someone trying to load a heavy hay bale.
  • The Trial jury found both parties were equally at fault and awarded Sollin $108k.
    • The jury was asked to determine how much fault did each person bear and what the damages should be.
  • The Trial judge then dismissed the case, since both parties were equally at fault. Sollin appealed.
    • The jury was never told how the questions they were to answer would be used. The jury specifically asked how the % fault would affect the damage award, but the judge did not provide them with the fact that, under North Dakota law, if both parties are equally at fault all damages are waived.
    • Sollins lawyer never asked for the jury to receive any instructions on this issue.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.
    • The modern trend in comparative negligence cases is to permit the jury to be informed of the legal consequences of its special verdict answers.
      • The old method (called contributory negligence) was to have the jury provide ‘blindfolded’ answers and have the judge apply the law.
      • Theoretically, this would stop jurors from modifying their verdicts to ensure that a party gets (or doesn’t get) damages that the law says they don’t deserve.
        • In this case, the jurors could have said Wangler was 51% at fault, and that the damages should be $54k, if they really wanted Sollin to get half the damages.
    • The Court completely agreed with Sollin’s logic and pledged to use the new method in the future. But, since Sollin’s lawyer did not bring the issue up at trial, there is no reversible error.