Legal Memorandum: Application of the Plain Error Rule in MN

Issue: Under Minnesota law, how is the plain error rule applied in cases where an objection to an ambiguity in the special verdict form was not made at trial?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Plain error rule; Ambiguity of the special verdict; Trial
Jurisdiction: Minnesota
Cited Cases: 16 N.W. 425
Cited Statutes: Minn. R. Civ. P. 51.04(b)
Date: 03/01/2014

Assuming that an error was not preserved by objection at trial, a Court should consider the issue under the plain error rule.  See Minn. R. Civ. P. 51.04(b); Zurko v. Gilquist, 62 N.W.2d 351, 354 (Minn. 1954) (where error in instruction was with respect to fundamental law or controlling principle, it was immaterial that error was not called to the attention of the trial court until after filing of motion for new trial).

Where the ambiguity of the special verdict question makes it unclear which of multiple defendants the jury intends to designate, the jury’s answer cannot form the proper basis for a judgment.  See Fidelity and Guar. Ins. Underwriters, Inc. v. Rodriguez, 141 Fed. Appx. 11, 13 (2d Cir. 2005).  Under that circumstance, the error is fundamental and the judgment cannot be based on the ambiguous verdict.  Pint v. Bauer, 31 Minn. 4, 16 N.W. 425 (1883) (“when a verdict is imperfect by reason of ambiguity or uncertainty or inconsistency, it is a mistrial, and a new trial must be granted”).


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