Thursday, March 13, 2014

Appellate Practice: Standard Of Review For Orders Granting A New Trial

By Kimberly Jones

A jury verdict affords a moment of triumph or defeat. However, it is often not the end of the battle, with work quickly resuming to draft post-trial motions and prepare for appeal. For lawyers handling a motion for new trial or an appeal of an order granting one, a recent Florida Supreme Court decision provides an excellent review of the applicable law. 

In Van v. Schmidt, SC11-1467, 2013 WL 4734584 (Fla. Sept. 4, 2013), the Florida Supreme Court considered how an appellate court should review a trial court’s order granting a new trial because the jury verdict was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence, where the order was partly premised on legal error. Van involved a personal injury action where liability was admitted. The jury returned a verdict awarding no damages. The trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for new trial based on the manifest weight of the evidence regarding causation, but the order was partially premised on the erroneous legal conclusion that the jury could not reject uncontroverted expert testimony. The First District Court of Appeals reversed the order and remanded for the trial court to enter judgment on the verdict. 

Exercising its discretionary jurisdiction, the Florida Supreme Court resolved a conflict between the First and Fourth Districts regarding the deference an appellate court affords to a trial court’s legal conclusions in an order granting new trial. (The Supreme Court exercised its discretionary jurisdiction to resolve the conflict between the First District’s decision in Schmidt v. Van, 65 So. 3d 1105, 1107–08 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011), which did not give deference to the trial court’s erroneous conclusion of law, and the Fourth District’s decision in Kuebler v. Ferris, 65 So. 3d 1154, 1158-58 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011), which emphasized the “very limited authority of the appellate court in reviewing the broad discretion granted to the trial court.”) It also explained the proper inquiry and remedy once an appellate court concludes the order is premised on erroneous conclusions of law.

The court held that “an appellate court properly applies a de novo standard of review to a trial court’s conclusions of law in an order granting a new trial based on the manifest weight of the evidence, giving no deference to the trial court’s legal conclusions.” Id. at *1 (approving the reasoning of Schmidt to the extent that the First District’s analysis was consistent with this holding, and disapproving Kuebler to the extent that the Fourth District interpreted E.R. Squibb & Sons, Inc. v. Farnes, 697 So. 2d 825 (Fla. 1997), and Brown v. Estate of Stuckey, 749 So. 2d 490 (Fla. 1999), to require deference to a trial court’s conclusions of law, even where the trial court’s order was partially premised on an error of law). However, the appellate court affords deference to a trial court’s findings of facts and determinations of credibility given the trial court’s superior vantage point over the trial. The appellate court may not focus on whether the verdict was supported by competent, substantial evidence, but instead on whether the trial court was unreasonable in ordering a new trial. Id. at *10, *16.  

If an appellate court determines a new trial was ordered based, in some part, on legal error, the next question is whether the trial court would have granted a new trial but for the error of law. When the appellate court cannot determine whether the trial court would have reached the same result but for the legal error, the proper remedy is to return the case to the trial court for reconsideration of its order in light of the correct legal principles. However, if the trial court’s result could only be based on the legal error, the appellate court can reverse and remand for reinstatement of the jury’s verdict.

Aside from the holding, this decision is worth reviewing for a refresher on the cases that established the principles governing appellate review of these orders. Van will assist in preparing post-trial motions or proposed orders, while affording guidance on the standard and remedy on appeal.