General verdicts are a staple of the American judicial system. Juries frequently decide cases through general verdicts, in which the jury applies the law as instructed by the court to its factual determinations. But general verdicts create problems for reviewing courts. Cases often involve multiple theories of liability and multiple elements within each theory. The hybrid nature of general verdicts—juries make factual findings and decide the outcome without specifying anything beyond the final verdict—prevents reviewing courts from determining the theory or element on which the jury relied. If the jury instruction for one of the theories was erroneous, a court reviewing the verdict cannot determine whether the jury relied on that erroneous theory. This problem extends beyond general verdicts, occurring even when a jury answers an interrogatory of a single question that contains multiple theories. Even without multiple theories, a jury could answer interrogatories but award damages in a lump sum. The question of what to do with such verdicts—whether to uphold verdicts when an adequate theory exists or reverse verdicts on an inadequate theory—has troubled courts for centuries.
Historically, the common-law standards of appellate review differed for civil and criminal cases. The civil rule, outlined in Maryland v Baldwin, required appellate courts to reverse and remand for a new trial if a general verdict could have been based on an inadequate theory, even if another theory was legally and factually adequate. The criminal rule, on the other hand, allowed appellate courts to uphold a verdict as long as one of the theories was legally and factually adequate. This difference between the civil and criminal rules could lead to incoherent results if interpreted in absolute terms. In a civil case, for example, a verdict could be reversed if one of thirty-one theories of liability were not supported by the evidence, even if the remaining thirty theories were valid. However, a criminal conviction could be upheld even if the judge’s legal instruction for one of two theories were incorrect.
Perhaps due to this tension, courts have recently moved toward a similar rule for civil and criminal verdicts. The criminal rule now dictates reversing general verdicts when one of the underlying theories was plagued by a legal error, similar to the approach in Baldwin. This shift in criminal cases has generated significant confusion among the lower courts. Some courts still adhere to a strict interpretation of the Baldwin principle in civil cases, holding that an error on a single theory is grounds for automatic reversal. Those courts maintain separation between civil and criminal rules. Other courts have imported a criminal law–like rule by upholding general verdicts in civil cases. Adding to the confusion is the federal harmless error statute and other harmless error rules, which require reviewing courts in both civil and criminal cases to ignore errors, including both legal and factual errors, that “do not affect the substantial rights of the parties.” Harmless error analysis is an additional step to determining whether a general verdict should be reversed, taken after deciding which rule—the civil or criminal rule—to apply. Courts disagree on whether harmless error analysis should displace the strict mandates of Baldwin and its progeny. These two sources of confusion—the harmless error rules and the application of criminal law—have led to inconsistencies both within and among circuits.
This Comment argues for a single rule that applies in both civil and criminal cases: General verdicts with a legal error— such as an erroneous jury instruction on the law or an improper admission of evidence—should be reversed unless the error was harmless. General verdicts with a factual error—insufficient evidence to support a theory—should be upheld unless the error was prejudicial. This approach is already the rule in criminal cases and should be adopted in civil cases based on the enactment of the harmless error rules. Because federal statutes generally displace the common law, this Comment suggests that the harmless error rules—which were enacted after Baldwin— require courts to conduct harmless error analysis before reversing a general verdict. Factual errors should be treated as presumptively harmless, so verdicts containing factual errors should be presumptively upheld under the harmless error exception. The application of a uniform rule in civil and criminal cases would resolve lower court confusion by informing courts of when verdicts can be upheld and whether courts can apply criminal– case law precedent in civil cases.