Edgewater Motels, Inc. v. Gatzke

277 N.W.2d 11 (Minn. 1979)



The granting of a judgment notwithstanding a jury verdict is a pure question of law. In reviewing the trial court's decision, the appellate court applies the same standard as the trial court did in passing upon the jury verdict. The applicable standard is as follows: A motion for judgment non obstante accepts the view of the evidence most favorable to the verdict and admits every inference reasonably to be drawn from such evidence, as well as the credibility of the testimony for the adverse party, and if the application of this rule, in the light of the evidence as a whole, discloses a reasonable basis for the verdict, the motion must be denied. The power to set aside a verdict should be exercised sparingly. If, however, upon a search of the entire record, after taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and giving the adverse party the benefit of every inference reasonably deducible therefrom, the evidence as a whole manifestly and so overwhelmingly preponderates to the contrary as to be practically conclusive against the verdict, the motion for judgment non obstante should be granted. 


The defendant employee drank four brandy Manhattans and returned to his motel room to fill out an expense report before starting the fire. The trial court set aside the jury's finding that the employee's negligent smoking of a cigarette while filing out the expense report was a direct cause of the fire and that the act occurred within the scope of his employment. In consolidated appeals, plaintiff motel and defendant employee challenged a judgment from the District Court, St. Louis County (Minnesota) in favor of defendant employer notwithstanding a jury verdict that the employee negligently caused a fire in the motel while he was in the scope of his employment. The motel also sought to set aside a jury finding that it was contributorily negligent. The court affirmed the district court's judgment as to contributory negligence, but reversed and set aside the judgment for the employer, reinstating the jury's determination that the employee was within the scope of his employment at the time of his negligent act.


Did the trial court err in refusing to set aside the jury's findings that defendant employee was contributorily negligent and that such negligence was a direct cause of the damages he sustained?




The court held that an employer could be vicariously liable for its employee's negligent cigarette smoking at the time of his negligent act. The court further held that it was reasonable for the jury to find the employee acted within the scope of his employment while completing his expense report. But the court affirmed the finding that providing plastic wastebaskets was contributorily negligent because evidence that a person would dispose of a cigarette in a wastebasket provided a reasonable basis for the jury's finding of proximate cause.

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