Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Estes v. Eaton Corp. (Cal. Ct. App. - June 29, 2020)

Most of this opinion I readily understand.  It was an asbestos case, the jury found for the defendant, the trial court granted a new trial because it thought that plaintiff's evidence was much better than the defendant's evidence, but the Court of Appeal reverses and reinstates the jury's verdict because the trial court's reasoning in this regard wasn't sufficiently clear or comprehensive.  You can't just say, as the trial court did here (and I'm quoting the new trial order in full):

“On a motion for new trial, the court may weigh all of the evidence, and after doing so, based on the entire record, find that the jury should have reached a different verdict. The court may draw reasonable inferences and resolve conflicts in the evidence that are contrary to the conclusions drawn by the jury. Upon weighing the evidence in this case under these standards, the court finds plaintiff presented sufficient credible evidence that he worked with arc chutes manufactured and supplied by Cutler-Hammer; the arc chutes contained asbestos; asbestos fibers from the arc chutes were released during plaintiff’s work with them; and the levels of fibers released posed a hazard to plaintiff, and may have been a substantial factor in causing injury to him. The evidence submitted by Eaton was not sufficient to rebut this evidence submitted by plaintiff. Therefore, the court finds there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find, as it did, that there was no design defect, no failure to warn, and no negligence on the part of Eaton in this case.”

That's just a conclusion.  You gotta do more.  The trial court has to at least explain why it comes out the way it did; it need not examine the trial transcript line-by-line, but it at least has to explain on what basis it comes out the way it did (i.e., which theory that the jury apparently found convincing was not, in fact, convincing) and why; e.g., what the major piece of evidence were.  The trial court didn't do that here, so the new trial order is reversed and the jury's verdict reinstated.

(To tell the truth, I'm not sure why the failure to sufficiently explain things requires a reversal rather than a remand, but apparently that's what the California Supreme Court has held, so it is what it is.  In my experience, where there's insufficient articulated reasoning below, we usually remand to give the trial court another shot, lest the party who won below -- who's not generally not responsible for the trial court's laziness -- lose on a technicality despite the fact that, here, perhaps a new trial should and would have been properly ordered on the merits if only the trial court had done its job of explaining its reasoning.  But that's another issue.)

So then we gotta deal with the plaintiff's cross-appeal, in which he says that the jury's verdict in favor of the defendant should be reversed because there was insufficient evidence to support such a verdict. That part of the opinion is testament to why trial lawyers often should involve new counsel on appeal.  Because, first, any appellate lawyer worth her salt would likely tell the trial lawyer that he's way too close to the issue and that, given the deference to a jury's verdict, such a challenge is pretty much always (as here) dead on arrival.  The appellate lawyer would also make sure not to do what the trial/appellate lawyers do here, which is to only recite in their briefs the evidence on their side -- a flaw that both (1) miffs the Court of Appeal, and (2) allows them (as here) to consider the issue forfeited for failure to examine the evidence on both sides of the issue.  Ultimately, the Court of Appeal decides that plaintiff was wrong on the merits anyway, and that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict.  But everyone would have saved time and money if a new counsel had been able to come in on appeal and say "Don't even bother raising a sufficiency of the evidence claim on appeal, since there's no way you're going to win."  Which pretty much anyone objective would have concluded at the outset.

So I understand pretty much everything about Justice Miller's opinion.  Except for the sentence in the middle of the penultimate paragraph.  Which reads:

"Without delving into the particulars, it suffices to say that Dr. Dahlgren’s opinion was no more ironclad than Dr. Rabinovitz’s opinion was of no weight whatsoever and unworthy of credence. The jury was certainly free to side with Dr. Rabinovitz’s opinions and conclusions over Dr. Dahlgren’s."

Wait.  What?  That first sentence makes no sense.  All I can figure is that the words "was of no weight whatsoever and unworthy of credence" were simply left in there from an earlier draft.

Or else I simply cannot understand proper English sentences anymore.  But I'm pretty sure it's just a leftover fragment.