Know Your Standard of Appellate Review Regarding the Admissibility of Evidence
The standard of appellate review regarding the trial court’s admissibility of evidence is an abuse of discretion. See Vavrus v. City of Palm Beach Gardens, 927 So.2d 992 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006); Castaneda ex rel. Cardona v. Redlands Christian Migrant Ass’n, Inc., 884 So.2d 1087 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004). Naturally, a party needs to preserve this issue by objecting to the admissibility of the evidence. If a trial court sustains an objection and excludes the evidence, the party trying to introduce the evidence should make a proffer / offer of proof.
On the other hand, the standard of review for the trial court’s interpretation of a contract, which is a question of law, is subject to the much more favorable de novo standard of appellate review. See Jenkins v. Eckard Corp., 913 So.2d 43 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005); RNK Family Limited Partnership v. Alexander-Mitchell Associates, 788 So.2d 1035 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001). This means the appellate court can examine the contract and reach a completely different legal interpretation than the trial court. See Leisure Resorts, Inc. v. City of West Palm Beach, 864 So.2d 1163 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003). Best explained by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Gilman Yacht Sales, Inc. v. FMB Investments, Inc.766 So.2d 294, 296 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000) (internal citations omitted):
“The interpretation of a written contract is a question of law to be decided by the court. An appellate court is not bound to give the trial judge’s interpretation or construction of a contract any weighted presumption of correctness. To the contrary, a decision construing a contract is reviewable on appeal under a de novo standard of review, and therefore we are required to consider for ourselves anew the meaning of the disputed contractual language.”
It is important for parties to know the standard(s) of appellate review they may confront when appealing a trial court’s ruling as the standard of review will dictate the amount of deference the appellate court is required to give the trial court’s ruling. A de novo standard of review is much more favorable than an abuse of discretion standard of review. The appellate standard of review is an essential component of appellate practice and will be identified in an appellate brief. And, besides the standard of review, a party defending an appeal (appellee) may argue that to to the extent the trial court erred, such error was nothing more than a harmless error that did not contribute to the verdict.
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