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Court of appeals tosses jury verdict in CHIPS case

Polk County v. Norman S., 2012AP2801, District 3, 5/29/13; court of appeals decision (1-judge, ineligible for publication); case activity.

Given the court of appeals’s highly deferential standard of review for jury verdicts, it doesn’t throw them out very often.  In this case, it did.   A jury found by clear and convincing evidence that Norman S. was unable to provide necessary care so as to seriously endanger the physical health of his son, Cody, and so the trial court entered a CHIPS order.  The court of appeals searched the record for evidence to support the verdict and accepted any any reasonable inference the jury could reach.  Slip op., ¶14.  Polk County lost anyway.

What’s interesting about this case is that Norman and Donna (Cody’s mother, who did not appeal) acknowledge having developmental disabilities and cognitive limitations.  Medical experts opined that these limitation make Norman and Donna incapable of raising children.  Both parents have their own “guardian of the person”, which, according to § 54.10(3)(a)2, means that they are “unable to meet the essential requirements for [their] physical health and safety.”  So why toss out the jury verdict for insufficient evidence?  Looks like Polk County dropped the ball.  It did not present the medical expert opinions at trial.  Nor did it tell the jury about the legal significance of having a guardian.  That’s pretty much why the court of appeals reversed the CHIPS order:

¶17 [T]he County never presented this evidence at trial. Instead, the evidence supporting the parents’ inability to provide necessary care so as to seriously endanger Cody’s physical health was (1) they both had guardians; (2) a social worker was “concern[ed]” about the parents’ “ability to understand age appropriate development for children in order to provide that structure and environment that they need to grow socially, emotionally, and developmentally on task”; (3) Norman had a developmental disability, which he stated meant he could not read, and had memory deficits; (4) Donna had a learning disability, which she described as a bruise on the side of her head which caused her to learn differently; and (5) the house they rented had mold in the basement.

¶18 We conclude this evidence is insufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that the parents were unable to provide necessary care so as to seriously endanger Cody’s physical health.



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