Judge correct in overturning jury verdict, when agreement too speculative to enforce

Mollie Pawlosky Dickinson Law Des Moines, Iowa Iowa Commercial Litigation Iowa Real Estate & Land Use

Posted on 11/04/2016 at 08:00 AM by Mollie Pawlosky

In every jury trial, after the verdict is rendered, the defendant should consider whether it is appropriate to ask the court to enter judgment in the defendant’s favor, notwithstanding the verdict.  Although these motions are frequently denied, the recent case of Kunde v. Bowman, No. 15-1483 (Sept. 28, 2016) shows that such motions are sometimes granted.

In Kunde, a plaintiff farmer claimed that his neighbor granted the farmer an oral option to purchase a farm for approximately $3000 an acre at an unspecified time in the future.  The farmer leased the farm from the owner and made substantial improvements, which the farmer alleged were consideration for the option to buy.  When the owner sold to a third party, the farmer sued for breach of the option agreement, and for equitable relief.

A jury found for the farmer on the breach of contract claim, awarding $52,000.  After the verdict, the court revisited the owner’s motion for directed verdict, granting the motion, finding a lack of consideration and indefinite contract terms.  The farmer asked for a new trial on the equitable claims, which was denied.  The farmer appealed.

The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of the motion, finding that the record lacked substantial evidence to support many essential terms of the contract, such as the deadline to exercise the option to buy.  The farmer repeatedly testified that there was no time set to exercise the option.  The Court of Appeals, therefore, held that the terms of the agreement were “far too speculative to be enforceable.”

However, in light of the court’s finding that the breach of contract claim was too speculative, the farmer was entitled to a new trial on his equitable claims for relief.  The jury was instructed to consider the equitable claim, only if the breach of contract claim was unsuccessful. When the jury initially found for the farmer, the jury did not consider the equitable claim.  Thus, when the district court overturned the jury verdict on the contract claim, the farmer became entitled to a new trial on the equitable claims.  The appellate court remanded for a new trial on the equitable claims.  But, the farmer would have to prove his equitable claims with clear and convincing evidence, which appears to be a significant burden, based on the record evidence to which the opinion refers.

Kunde reminds defendants that even if it sometimes seems that motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict are a waste of time, defendants should always consider making such motions, if they can be made in good faith.  For further information regarding trial practice, contact Mollie Pawlosky.

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed.

Mollie Pawlosky


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