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Raymond v. Wilcox Memorial Hospital

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

July 10, 2019

CAMERON RAYMOND, Plaintiff,
v.
WILCOX MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT WILCOX MEMORIAL HOSPITAL'S MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL AND TO AMEND THE JUDGMENT

          Alan C. Kay Sr. United States District Judge.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES Defendant Wilcox Memorial Hospital's Motion for a New Trial and to Amend the Judgment, ECF No. 481.

         BACKGROUND

         For purposes of this Order, the Court will not recount this case's lengthy procedural and factual history beginning in 2015. The Court only discusses those facts of specific relevance to the issues that this Order addresses. Detailed procedural and factual discussions are available in the Court's Order Denying Defendant Wilcox Memorial Hospital's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law dated April 16, 2019. See ECF No. 470.

         A jury trial on Plaintiff Cameron Raymond's (“Plaintiff”) claims against Defendant Wilcox Memorial Hospital (“Defendant”) for assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) took place on March 13-15 and 20- 21, 2019. ECF Nos. 437, 438, 440, 455, and 456. The jury deliberated on March 21 and 22, 2019, ECF Nos. 456 and 461, and returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on March 22, 2019. ECF Nos. 461 and 463. The jury found Defendant liable for assault, battery, and IIED, and awarded Plaintiff $722, 600, comprising $297, 600 in compensatory damages[1]/ and $425, 000 in punitive damages. ECF No. 463. On April 16, 2019, the Court issued an Order Denying Defendant Wilcox Memorial Hospital's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (the “April 16, 2019 Order”). ECF No. 470. Judgment was entered on that same date. ECF No. 471.

         On May 14, 2019, Defendant filed the instant Motion for a New Trial and to Amend the Judgment (“Motion”), ECF No. 481, together with a Memorandum in Support (“Mem. in Supp.”) thereof.[2]/ ECF No. 481-1. On May 28, 2019, Plaintiff filed a Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant's Motion (“Mem. in Opp.”), ECF No. 486, and on June 10, 2019, Defendant filed its Reply. ECF No. 489. Under the Local Rules of Practice for the United States District Court for the District of Hawai'i, motions for a new trial and motions to amend a judgment are non-hearing motions, and the Court finds that a hearing on this Motion is neither necessary nor appropriate. See L.R. 7.2(e).

         STANDARDS

         I. Motion for a New Trial

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) provides that “after a jury trial . . . [t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court[.]” Rule 59(a)(1)(A).

         “Rule 59 does not specify the grounds on which a motion for a new trial may be granted[.]” Zhang v. Am. Gem Seafoods, Inc., 339 F.3d 1020, 1035 (9th Cir. 2003). Instead, the Court is “bound by those grounds that have been historically recognized.” Id. “Historically recognized grounds include, but are not limited to, claims ‘that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving.'” Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940)). The Ninth Circuit has held that “[t]he trial court may grant a new trial only if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice.” Passantino v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Prod., Inc., 212 F.3d 493, 510 n.15 (9th Cir. 2000). In ruling on a motion for a new trial, “the district court has the duty to weigh the evidence as the court saw it, and to set aside the verdict of the jury, even though supported by substantial evidence, where, in the court's conscientious opinion, the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of evidence” Molski, 481 F.3d at 729 (citations, internal quotation marks, and alterations omitted).

         In other words, in most cases, the judge should accept the findings of the jury; however, if the judge is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed, he may order a new trial:

On the one hand, the trial judge does not sit to approve miscarriages of justice. His power to set aside the verdict is supported by clear precedent at common law and, far from being a denigration or a usurpation of jury trial, has long been regarded as an integral part of trial by jury as we know it. On the other hand, a decent respect for the collective wisdom of the jury, and for the function entrusted to it in our system, certainly suggests that in most cases the judge should accept the findings of the jury, regardless of his own doubts in the matter . . . . If, having given full respect to the jury's findings, the judge on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed, it is to be expected that he will grant a new trial.

Landes Constr. Co. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1371- 72 (9th Cir. 1987) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “The judge can weigh evidence and assess the credibility of witnesses, and need not view the evidence from the perspective most favorable to the prevailing party.” Id. at 1371. But “the court is not justified in granting a new trial ‘merely because it might have come to a different result from that reached by the jury.'” Roy v. Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 896 F.2d 1174, 1176 (9th Cir. 1990) (citation omitted).

         II. Motion to Amend the Judgment

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) permits a party to move the court to alter or amend a judgment after its entry. A Rule 59(e) motion may be granted if doing so (1) is necessary to correct a judgment that rests on manifest errors of law or fact; (2) is necessary to present newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence; (3) is necessary to prevent manifest injustice; or (4) if there is an intervening change in controlling law. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Herron, 634 F.3d 1101, 1111 (9th Cir. 2011) (citing McDowell v. Calderon, 197 F.3d 1253, 1255 n.1 (9th Cir. 1999)). A “district court enjoys considerable discretion in granting or denying” a Rule 59(e) motion. McDowell, 197 F.3d at 1255 n.1. However, amendment should be granted sparingly “in the interests of finality and conservation of judicial resources.” Kona Enterprises, Inc. v. Estate of Bishop, 229 F.3d 877, 890 (9th Cir. 2000).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Motion for a New Trial

         Defendant presents six arguments as to why it is entitled to a new trial, each of which the Court addresses in turn.

         A. Apportionment of Damages

         Defendant argues that it is entitled to a new trial because the jury “failed to properly apportion damages to Plaintiff's pre-existing condition.” Mem. in Supp. at 5-11. According to Defendant, “there is no way in light of [the jury] instructions to reconcile the inconsistent findings by the jury relating to pre-existing injury or condition, and the aggravation of that pre-existing injury or condition[.]” Id. at 10.

         The jury was instructed to award damages exclusive of those damages attributable to any pre-existing condition of Plaintiff's that was unresolved at the time of Defendant's assault, battery, and IIED:

Jury Instruction No. 27
A tortfeasor is liable not only for damages resulting from direct and unique injuries inflicted on the victim, but also for damages resulting from the aggravation of any pre-existing injury or condition. A tortfeasor is not liable for damages attributable solely to a pre-existing injury or condition.
In determining the amount of damages, if any, to be awarded to Plaintiff, you must determine whether Plaintiff had an injury or condition that existed prior to the June 6, 2013 incident.
If you find that Plaintiff was fully recovered from the pre-existing injury or condition at the time of the subject incident, then you should not apportion damages.
If you find that Plaintiff was not fully recovered from the pre-existing injury or condition, you should make an apportionment of damages by determining what portion of the damages is attributable solely to the pre-existing injury or condition and limit your award to:
(1) the damages attributable to the injury directly and uniquely caused by Defendant; and
(2) the damages attributable to any aggravation of the pre-existing injury or condition resulting from Defendant's conduct.
If you are unable to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence, what portion of the damages can be attributed to the preexisting injury or condition, you may make a rough apportionment.
If you are unable to make a rough apportionment, then you must divide the damages equally between the pre-existing injury or condition and the injury caused by Defendant.

Day 5 Tr. at 17:21-25, 18:1-25.

         Question 6 on the Verdict Form asked if Plaintiff “suffer[ed] from an injury or condition that existed prior to the assault, battery, and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress[.]” Verdict Form, ECF No. 463, at 5. The jury answered “yes” to this question. Id. Question 7 asked “If so, was the pre-existing injury or condition aggravated by the assault, battery, and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress?” Id. Again, the jury answered “yes” to this question. Id. Question 8 asked the jury to apportion Plaintiff's injury or harm, by percentage, between: (a) his preexisting injury or condition, if any; (b) aggravation of preexisting injury or condition, if any; and (c) injury directly and uniquely caused by Defendant. Id. at 6. The jury apportioned zero percent to categories (a) and (b), and apportioned one hundred percent to category (c). Id. The Verdict Form's Question 8 further directed the jury to add the percentages of categories (b) and (c) to reach a total that represented the portion of injury or harm attributable to Defendant; the jury concluded that Defendant was responsible for one hundred percent of Plaintiff's injury or harm. Id.

         Plaintiff argues that Defendant waived its objection to this purported inconsistency in the jury's verdict because it failed to object before the jury was discharged. Plaintiff goes on to argue that even if Defendant did not waive its objection, the jury's verdict is not inconsistent. The Court addresses these arguments in turn.

         i. Defendant Did Not Waive Its Objection

         Waiver depends on whether the Verdict Form at issue here was a special verdict or a general verdict with answers to written questions. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 49 addresses forms of verdicts, with Rule 49(a) directed at special verdicts and Rule 49(b) directed at general verdicts with answers to written questions or interrogatories. Fed.R.Civ.P. 49. A party waives a claim of inconsistent verdicts based on general verdicts or general verdicts with written questions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 49(b) if the party does not timely object to the alleged inconsistency before the jury is discharged. Pierce v. S. Pac. Transp. Co., 823 F.2d 1366, 1370 (9th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted). However, this waiver rule is inapplicable to special verdicts under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 49(a). Id.

         The line between a special verdict and a general verdict with written questions is notoriously hard to find. Compare verdict form in El-Hakem v. BJY Inc., 262 F.Supp.2d 1139 (D. Or. 2003), aff'd, 415 F.3d 1068 (9th Cir. 2005), which the Ninth Circuit later denoted as containing “functionally general verdicts, ” Williams v. Gaye, 895 F.3d 1106, 1132 n.21 (9th Cir. 2018), and verdict form in O'Phelan v. Loy, No. CIV. 09-00236 ACK, 2011 WL 2006426 (D. Haw. May 23, 2011), aff'd, 497 Fed.Appx. 720 (9th Cir. 2012), which the Ninth Circuit found to have “comprised only factual findings, ” 497 Fed.Appx. at 721 (citation omitted).

         However, “the theoretical distinction between general and special verdicts is that general verdicts require the jury to apply the law to the facts, and therefore require legal instruction, whereas special verdicts compel the jury to focus exclusively on its fact-finding role.” Zhang v. Am. Gem Seafoods, Inc., 339 F.3d 1020, 1031 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “If the jury announces only its ultimate conclusions, it returns an ordinary general verdict; if it makes factual findings in addition to the ultimate legal conclusions, it returns a general verdict with interrogatories. If it returns only factual findings, leaving the court to determine the ultimate legal result, it returns a special verdict.” Id. “[T]he key is not the number of questions on a verdict form, but whether the jury announces the ultimate legal result of each claim.” Id.

         Here, although the Verdict Form was denoted “Special Verdict Form, ” it appears likely that the Verdict Form was, in fact, a general verdict form with written questions. This is because the jury's pronouncements were not limited to factual findings, and the Court was not left to determine the ultimate legal result. Rather, the jury, having been instructed at length on the law, concluded that Defendant committed assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, each of which was the legal cause of damages to Plaintiff, Verdict Form at 3, and that Defendant was liable to Plaintiff in the amount of $722, 600, id. at 9 (adding figure for “Total Compensatory Damages for Which [Defendant] is Liable” to punitive damages to arrive at a “Total Award” of $722, 600).

         Nevertheless, the Court concludes that the Verdict Form submitted to the jury was a “Special Verdict Form.” The Ninth Circuit has observed that “it seems that the form of a general verdict with interrogatories is virtually indistinguishable from that of a special verdict.” Floyd v. Laws, 929 F.2d 1390, 1395 (9th Cir. 1991). Indeed, “[o]ften courts are unable to decide whether a verdict is a special verdict under Rule 49(a) or a general verdict with interrogatories under Rule 49(b). Id. Accordingly, because the Court referred to the Verdict Form as a “Special Verdict Form, ” and therefore the parties likely operated under the assumption that Rule 49(a) governed, the Court concludes that the Verdict form was, indeed, a “Special Verdict Form.” See id. at 1396 (“Consequently, as a matter of law, the interrogatories submitted to the jury in this case constituted a special verdict, simply because that is what the trial court declared them to be.”). Accordingly, Defendant did not waive its challenge to the jury's purportedly inconsistent findings.

         Even if the Court were to conclude that the Verdict Form was a general verdict with written interrogatories, the result would be the same. Defendant does not argue that the jury's response to Questions 6, 7, and 8 are inconsistent with the general verdict holding Defendant liable for assault, battery, and IIED; rather, Defendant contends that “there is no way . . . to reconcile the inconsistent findings by the jury.” Mem. in Supp. at 10 (emphasis added). Rule 49(b) mandates resubmission to the jury only where the jury's answers to written questions are inconsistent with each other and the verdict. Fed.R.Civ.P. 49(b)(4). Accordingly, because Defendant does not argue that the jury's answers to written questions were inconsistent with its ultimate verdict finding Defendant liable to Plaintiff, Rule 49(b) waiver would not apply in this case.

         ii. The Jury's Findings on Apportionment of Damages Are Not Inconsistent

         “The Seventh Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that ‘no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States' except ‘according to the rules of the common law.'” Zhang, 339 F.3d at 1038 (quoting Gallick v. Baltimore & O. R. Co., 372 U.S. 108, 119 (1963)). In other words, where the jury undertakes factfinding, it is the Court's duty to attempt to harmonize those facts found with one another “if it is possible under a fair reading of them, ” and to do so “by exegesis if necessary[.]” See Gallick, 372 U.S. at 119 (citations omitted). Only if this is not possible may the court order a new trial. See id. Courts are required to consider the consistency of verdicts in light of the jury instructions. Id. at 120-21.

         There are several possible ways, via a fair reading, to harmonize the jury's answers to the Verdict Form's Questions 6, 7, and 8. The jury may have misinterpreted Question 8, and in particular the portion that required it to apportion damages to the aggravation of Plaintiff's pre-existing injury or condition before assigning liability for that aggravation to Defendant. Rather than taking the preliminary step of assigning a percentage to the aggravation, the jury may well have simply entered the one-hundred percent figure at which it would have arrived had it first apportioned damages to aggravation, then added that figure to the damage directly and uniquely caused by Defendant. See Day 5 Tr. at 17:22-25, 18:1-2 (“A tortfeasor is liable not only for damages resulting from direct and unique injuries ...


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