In May 2019, at the Arthur Jordan Branch YMCA in Indianapolis, Indiana, Jacqueline Mastellone was returning to the locker room following her swim class. As she opened the door to the locker room, she slipped and fell over a portion of the floor that did not have a slip-resistant mat.
As a result of the fall, Mastellone dislocated and fractured her left shoulder. She underwent a complex reverse total shoulder replacement, which required extended hospitalization and physical therapy. Now, Mastellone is on a 10-pound permanent lifting restriction. Additionally, she complains of ongoing pain and will likely receive medical treatment indefinitely. Approximately one year after the slip and fall incident, Mastellone filed suit against the YMCA.
Before trial, the YMCA filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of and references to new flooring being installed after Mastellone’s fall. The YMCA argued that such evidence was not relevant and unduly prejudicial. The trial court granted the motion in part and denied it in part. More specifically, the trial court allowed evidence regarding the installation of a new floor. However, the trial court excluded evidence that the flooring changed.
In August 2021, a jury trial was held in Marion Superior Court. During the cross-examination of the YMCA’s district vice president, the plaintiff’s counsel asked whether the defendant replaced the flooring after Mastellone’s fall. The defense counsel summarily objected to the question on the grounds that such evidence was irrelevant and prejudicial. The trial court overruled the defense counsel’s objection. The defense counsel then moved for a mistrial, which the trial court also denied.
The jury then reached a verdict. However, the YMCA discovered that an exhibit, a piece of flooring, wasn’t sent back to the jury room during deliberation. The YMCA moved for a mistrial a second time. The trial court denied the motion on the grounds that the jury had the opportunity to examine the exhibit when it was admitted into evidence.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Mastellone for $850,000 in total damages. The jury allocated 60% of the fault to the YMCA and 40% to Mastellone. After reducing the damages based upon Mastellone’s fault, the YMCA’s liability was $510,000. The trial court entered a judgment based upon the jury verdict.
Trial Court’s Order Reconsidering Motion for Mistrial
Approximately three days after entering a judgment based upon the jury verdict, the trial court sua sponte issued an Order Reconsidering Motion for Mistrial. The trial court’s order set aside the jury verdict and judgment. However, the order did not specify which mistrial motion it was reconsidering and didn’t provide reasoning for its reconsideration.
Based on the trial court’s order, Mastellone filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals of Indiana. Mastellone argued that the trial court erred in declaring a mistrial. The YMCA filed a cross-appeal, arguing that the trial court’s ruling denying both of the YMCA’s mistrial motions was erroneous. The cross-appeal also claimed that the jury’s verdict was excessive.
Case on Appeal
Mastellone argued before the Court of Appeals that the trial court erred in declaring a mistrial. Mastellone claimed that the trial court did not have the authority to reconsider its pre-judgment rulings. Furthermore, Mastellone argued that the trial court failed to comply with Trial Rule 59’s requirements for a motion to correct an error.
Trial Rule 59
Agreeing with Mastellone, the Court of Appeals explained that the Order Reconsidering Motion for Mistrial was issued three days after the trial court entered a final judgment. Therefore, the trial court no longer had the authority to reconsider its pre-judgment rulings. More specifically, according to the Court of Appeals, once the trial court enters a final judgment, it may only reconsider prior rulings through a Trial Rule 59 motion to correct an error.
The Court of Appeals further explained that a Trial Rule 59 motion shall state the error specifically and shall be accompanied by a statement of facts and grounds upon which the error is based. The Court of Appeals noted that the trial court’s order, in this case, failed to provide any specificity as to why the trial court was setting aside the verdict. Moreover, the trial court order didn’t specify which of the YMCA’s two motions for mistrial it was reconsidering and granting. Additionally, the trial court order did not include reasoning for the reconsideration.
Failure to Comply With Trial Rule 59
The Court of Appeals opined that the trial court failed to comply with Trial Rule 59 when setting aside its judgment. As such, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s Order Reconsidering Motion for Mistrial. The Court of Appeals also remanded the case to the trial court with direction to reinstate the jury’s verdict.
On cross-appeal, the YMCA argued that even if the trial court’s Order Reconsidering Motion for Mistrial was erroneous, the jury verdict must be vacated because the trial court erred in denying its two mistrial motions. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion by denying the YMCA’s two mistrial motions. Finally, the YMCA argued on cross-appeal that the jury verdict was excessive and not supported by evidence. The Court of Appeals rejected the YMCA’s argument. The Court of Appeals held that, based on Mastellone’s injury, ongoing pain, continued medical care, and new daily struggles associated with her shoulder injury, there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s award.
In sum, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s Order Reconsidering Motion for Mistrial. Then, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to reinstate the jury’s verdict. Additionally, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in denying the YMCA’s mistrial motions. The Court of Appeals also held that the jury’s award was not excessive.
The Takeaway From This Personal Injury Case
The Court of Appeals’ reversal was based upon the trial court’s failure to comply with the Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure. This case serves as a reminder to plaintiff attorneys to be familiar with and up to date on the rules of trial or civil procedure in one’s jurisdiction.