McBride v. Kieckhefer Associates (CA1 1/27/11)

(LATER NOTE: McBride filed a motion for reconsideration of this opinion because the court did not address one of the issues, equitable estoppel. The court granted it and issued an Amended Opinion on November 3, 2011. The new one does not change the result but adds a section on the estoppel issue. Although pages long, all it amounts to is that there was evidence in the record to support the trial court’s findings that the facts weren’t as McBride said they were. Much of the time is spent regurgitating equitable estoppel law, none of which is new or unusual and very little of which is even notable in the context of this opinion. We said below that this was a nice opinion; the new section is an unfortunate blemish. This does teach, though, that with a little effort and luck you can at least hang up your case in the Court of Appeals for ten extra months.)

This discusses the standards for granting and reviewing JMOL and new trial.

McBride sued Kieckhefer for damages; Kieckhefer asserted the statute of limitations; a jury trial was held on that issue; McBride won. But the court then granted Kieckhefer’s renewed JMOL. It also granted a new trial – on the basis, among others, that the evidence did not justify the verdict – conditionally, i.e., a new trial if the Court of Appeals reverses the JMOL ruling.

Which, by this opinion, it does. The appellate court rules on JMOLs de novo. The evidence – a he-said-she-said about whether the lawyers had an agreement to toll the statute – was conflicting. On JMOL “a trial court may not weigh the credibility of witnesses or resolve conflicts of evidence and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom.”

On a new-trial motion, though, the trial court can weigh the evidence. Its ruling is considered not de novo but for abuse of discretion. The appellate court applies “a more liberal standard when reviewing an order granting a new trial than an order denying one.” And when the basis for the new trial is that the verdict was contrary to the evidence the court will “resolve every conflict in the evidence in support of the order.” “Our supreme court has emphasized that granting a new trial because the verdict is against the weight of the evidence and does not achieve substantial justice is the “least susceptible to appellate scrutiny” (Bradshaw 1977).

The court therefore reverses the JMOL but affirms the new trial and remands.

This is a nice opinion. Division One often discusses the standard of review uselessly and at great length. Here, where the standard is actually at issue, the discussion is clear and relatively brief. And, remarkably, there are less than 1/3rd as many footnotes as pages.

As for the newfangled gobbledygook of “JMOL” rather than the self-explanatory “directed verdict,” that is probably something we’ll just have to get used to and isn’t, as far as we know, Division One’s fault.

(link to opinion)