new trial

Appealing Correct Measure of Damages

Posted by David Adelstein on September 29, 2018
Appeal, Evidence / Comments Off on Appealing Correct Measure of Damages

In an earlier article, I wrote how economic damages MUST be supported by substantial competent evidence. 

In a recent case, Levy v. Ben-Shmuel, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D2229a (Fla. 3d DCA 2018), a plaintiff, after a bench trial, recovered a judgment against a defendant that included money damages associated with a claim for conversion.  During trial, and after the plaintiff’s case-in-chief, the defendant moved for an involuntary dismissal arguing the plaintiff failed to meet its burden in establishing the correct measure of damages at trial.  On appeal, the plaintiff ultimately conceded that he did not establish the correct measure of damages.  The issue was whether the plaintiff should be entitled to a new trial.  The Third District held NO!  The plaintiff is NOT entitled to a new trial on damages:

We also write to clarify the law within this [Third] district, and hold, as a general rule, that where this court determines, on appeal from a properly preserved claim, that a party failed to meet its burden of establishing the correct measure of damages at trial, that party is not entitled on remand to a new trial on damages, unless that party’s failure to meet its burden was the result of judicial error.

Levy, supra (“The generally prevailing rule is that a party will not be permitted a new trial on remand to remedy its own failure to present sufficient evidence to support its claim.”).

It is worth noting that in a bench trial, “the sufficiency of the evidence to support the judgment may be raised on appeal whether or not the party raising the question [objection] has made any objection thereto in the trial court or made a motion for rehearing, for new trial, or to alter or amend the judgment.”  Fla.R.Civ.P. 1.530(e).   Thus, in a bench trial, a party can challenge the sufficiency of the evidence for the first time on appeal.  In Levy, the defendant had actually moved for an involuntary dismissal after the plaintiff’s case-in-chief, but had he not done so, the objection to the sufficiency of evidence would still have been properly preserved for appeal.  

A jury trial, however, is different.  In a jury trial, “where a defendant fails to timely move for a directed verdict [as the sufficiency of evidence], and raises this issue for the first time in a motion for new trial, the proper remedy upon reversal and remand is a new trial.”  Levy, supra, n. 2.  Hence, in a jury trial, if a defendant does timely move for a directed verdict on such an issue, then the proper remedy is to enter judgment in favor of the defendant as the plaintiff is not entitled to a new trial. Id.  But, if the defendant first raises such an issue for the first time in a motion for new trial, then the proper remedy would be a new trial.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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A New Trial is Not Automatically Warranted when Jury Renders what a Plaintiff Perceives to be an Inadequate Jury Verdict

Posted by David Adelstein on April 29, 2018
Appeal, Standard of Review / Comments Off on A New Trial is Not Automatically Warranted when Jury Renders what a Plaintiff Perceives to be an Inadequate Jury Verdict

Juries do not always award huge jury verdicts in favor of plaintiffs in personal injury actions.  Sure, sometimes they definitely do.  But it is also true that sometimes they do not.  Juries can find that the (i) defendant was not liable, (ii) the plaintiff was comparatively liable, or (iii) that the plaintiff’s damages were relatively minor.  As to the latter two points, this was the issue in Black v. Cohen, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D903e (Fla. 4th DCA 2018), involving an automobile accident, where the trial court granted plaintiff’s motion for a new trial based on an inadequate jury verdict

In this case, there was a relatively minor rear end automobile collision in 2007 causing $1,600 in damages to plaintiff’s bumper.   Thereafter, plaintiff was having right-sided neck pain and a cervical fusion was recommended and ultimately performed in 2011.  Plaintiff’s orthopedic surgeon opined that the car accident caused her disc herniation that led to her surgery.  Plaintiff’s medical bills totaled $240,000.  During trial, plaintiff’s attorney asked the jury to award the $240,000 in past medical expenses, $40,000 for future medical visits, a minimum of $700,000 for past pain and suffering, and a minimum of $200,000 for future pain and suffering.

The defense argued with expert testimony that plaintiff’s x-rays taken right after the accident were normal showing only arthritic or degenerative changes, and that plaintiff’s injuries were not permanent.  The cervical fusion performed in 2011 was not attributed to the 2007 car accident.

The jury found that both plaintiff and defendant were equally liable for the accident, plaintiff’s injuries were not permanent, and awarded plaintiff only $18,506 in past medical bills.  Nothing was awarded to plaintiff for pain and suffering.

Plaintiff moved for a new trial regarding the inadequate jury verdict.  One argument raised was that during the trial the defendant took the stand to testify that he was a medical student and further doing research on cancer to receive a PhD.  Plaintiff claimed this was elicited simply to prejudicially influence the jury in favor of the defense; the defense countered that this was permissible evidence to humanize the defendant so that a jury can assess his credibility.  The court agreed with plaintiff’s motion and ordered a new trial as the result of the inadequate jury award.  The defense appealed the trial court’s order granting a new trial.

Regarding the standard of appellate standard of review regarding this issue of an inadequate jury award, the appellate court quoted:

When reviewing the order granting a new trial, an appellate court must recognize the broad discretionary authority of the trial judge and apply the reasonableness test to determine whether the trial judge committed an abuse of discretion. If an appellate court determines that reasonable persons could differ as to the propriety of the action taken by the trial court, there can be no finding of an abuse of discretion. The fact that there may be substantial, competent evidence in the record to support the jury verdict does not necessarily demonstrate that the trial judge abused his or her discretion.

. . . .

Regarding inadequate or excessive verdicts, this ground is a corollary of the ground asserting that the verdict is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. A new trial may be ordered on the grounds that the verdict is excessive or inadequate when (1) the verdict shocks the judicial conscience or (2) the jury has been unduly influenced by passion or prejudice. . . . Regardless of whether a new trial was ordered because the verdict was excessive or inadequate or was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence, the appellate court must employ the reasonableness test to determine whether the trial judge abused his or her discretion.

Black, supra, quoting Brown v. Estate of Stuckey, 749 So.2d 490, 497-98 (Fla. 1999).

Based on this standard of review, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order granting a new trial and remanded the case back to the trial court to enter final judgment consistent with the jury’s (nominal) verdict:

Even if we consider the ruling as being within the “broad discretion” afforded to trial courts in ruling on motions for new trial, we would still conclude that the court abused its discretion in ordering a new trial based upon the comments about Black’s [defendant’s] cancer research. We simply cannot conclude that mention of Black’s cancer research was so prejudicial that the jury was misled and misperceived the weight of the evidence because of it and decided the case upon the fact that the defendant did cancer research. No reasonable person would conclude that the verdict was fatally tainted by this single remark.

We are not bound by any findings and credibility determinations, because the trial court made none. The court did not explain or analyze why the verdict was “grossly inadequate.” The trial court made no analysis of the testimony of the witnesses. Implicit in its finding of gross inadequacy must be a finding that no evidence supported the jury’s finding of no permanency; however, without an analysis of the evidence in the case and how the trial court would have come to that conclusion, the trial court’s decision cannot be sustained. On the record before us, the issue of liability and permanency were hotly contested, and the court has shed no light as to why the defense’s evidence supporting its case should be rejected. Therefore, we conclude that the court abused its broad discretion in ordering a new trial.

Black, supra.

As this case demonstrates, a new trial will not automatically be warranted just because the jury rendered what a plaintiff perceives to be an inadequate jury verdict.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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New Trial Warranted for Prejudicially Inflaming the Jury

Posted by David Adelstein on December 16, 2017
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on New Trial Warranted for Prejudicially Inflaming the Jury

Jury trials do contain a degree of theatrics, particularly when it comes to opening and closing statements. The objective is to persuasively demonstrate to the jury your theme of the dispute – what the evidence will show (in the opening statement) and what the evidence reveals that supports your theme and the application of the law (in the closing statement). This does not mean, however, that you can intentionally and prejudicially inflame the passions of the jury. Doing so will result in a new trial, and oftentimes, an unnecessary new trial.

An example of this can be found in the case TT of Indian River, Inc. v. Fortson, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D2655a (Fla. 5th DCA 2017). This case involved an automobile accident where liability had been stipulated. The defendant was not interested in trying the liability of the case. The jury trial was ONLY as to damages. Liability was therefore irrelevant. Nonetheless, at trial, the plaintiff’s counsel, over the objection of the defense, called a corporate representative of the defendant and inquired as to issues concerning liability to create the perception that the defendant engaged in indifference and misconduct regarding the underlying automobile accident. The plaintiff also used the term of “guilt” to describe the defendant’s stipulation as to liability and the term of “innocence” to describe the plaintiff’s conduct.   After a final judgment was rendered against the defendant in accordance with the jury’ verdict, the defendant appealed for a new trial on damages. The appellate court agreed reversing the final judgment and mandating a new trial on damages due to conduct designed to inflame the jury.

When a defendant admits the entire responsibility for an accident and only the amount of damages is at issue, evidence regarding liability is irrelevant and prejudicial.  Moreover, as this court has recognized, it is improper to refer to “guilt” or “innocence” at a civil trial on negligence

Fortson, supra (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Leading Questions Forming Basis of Appeal

Posted by David Adelstein on August 07, 2016
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Leading Questions Forming Basis of Appeal

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During a direct examination at trial, a party will always tiptoe on the fine line of asking the witness leading questions in order to elicit the desired testimony.  Leading questions, in most circumstances, are objectionable during direct examination because it allows the lawyer asking questions to basically testify while leading the witness to the answer he or she is seeking.   Look, a lawyer will ask leading questions if he/she can get away with it—until the trial court sustains objections.  But, just because a trial court sustains an objection does not necessarily mean the lawyer will stop asking leading questions during direct examination.  If a lawyer can get away with leading a witness during direct examination to elicit the testimony needed, the lawyer will do so and probably should do so. 

When do leading questions in a civil trial become so over-the-top to warrant a new trial? They really do not! “[L]eading questions do not result in an error that will warrant a new trial.” Moore v. Gillet, 96 So.3d 933, 944 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012).

In Moore, during the defense, direct examination of a treating doctor was being conducted. The doctor was serving as a defense witness. The trial court sustained numerous objections that the defense was leading the defense witness. At some point, and despite there not being an objection or motion for mistrial by the plaintiff, the trial court terminated the defense’s questions of its witness due to the persistent leading questions.

At the conclusion of the trial, the trial court ordered a new trial upon motion by the plaintiff. One of the reasons the trial court granted the new trial was due to the defense’s persistent leading questions. The defense appealed the trial court granting a mistrial.

With respect to leading questions, the appellate court held that the issue was not properly preserved for appeal because the plaintiff did not move for a mistrial at the time of the questions. The trial court ceasing the defense’s examination of a defense witness due to leading questions was a severe remedy that the plaintiff agreed to. The plaintiff did not make a contemporaneous motion for mistrial based on the leading questions, but rather, accepted the trial court terminating the defense’s direct examination.   But, even if the plaintiff did contemporaneously move for a mistrial, the leading questions would not warrant a new trial because leading questions generally do not form the basis of error for purposes of an appeal.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Recipient of Trial Court’s Error Needs to Prove Harmless Error

Posted by David Adelstein on November 05, 2015
Evidence / Comments Off on Recipient of Trial Court’s Error Needs to Prove Harmless Error

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I previously discussed that the “no reasonable possibility test” is the harmless error test in civil trials. This means that even if the trial judge committed an error, the recipient of the error (generally the appellee) has to prove that the error was harmless in that there was no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict (against the appellant).

Here is a case where the trial court committed error but the appellee that prevailed at trial was unable to establish that the error was harmless. Thus, the error committed by the trial court was deemed to be reversible error entitling the appellant (losing party) to a new trial.

In Maniglia v. Carpenter, 40 Fla. L. Weekly D2485c (Fla. 3d DCA 2015), the plaintiff sued the defendant over injuries sustained in a car accident.   Less than a month after the accident, the plaintiff was involved in a golf tournament where he got inebriated and drove the golf car into the street, collided with a car, fell off the golf cart, and then got into a physical altercation with the police.   The defendant naturally wanted to introduce these events during trial for multiple reasons. First, the defendant wanted to establish that the plaintiff never told his treating chiropractor about these events, which could have affected the plaintiff’s credibility to the jury. And, second, these other events could have served as a jury instruction relating to other intervening causes for the plaintiff’s injuries.

The trial court granted a motion in limine finding that these events were unfairly prejudicial to the plaintiff. As a result, the jury never heard the true nature of the events and a verdict was entered against the defendant.

On appeal, the appellate court held that it was error for the trial court to exclude this evidence since the evidence was probative and was not outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Based on this error, the appellate court held that the plaintiff was required to prove that the error was harmless – there was no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the jury’s verdict. The plaintiff, however, was unable to meet this burden meaning that the defendant was entitled to a new trial.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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