Law School Case Brief
Weisgram v. Marley Co. - 528 U.S. 440, 120 S. Ct. 1011 (2000)
Appellate courts should give due consideration to the first-instance decisionmaker's "feel" for the overall case. But the court of appeals has authority to render the final decision. If, in the particular case, the appellate tribunal determines that the district court is better positioned to decide whether a new trial, rather than judgment for defendant, should be ordered, the court of appeals should return the case to the trial court for such an assessment. But if the court of appeals concludes that further proceedings are unwarranted because the loser on appeal has had a full and fair opportunity to present the case, including arguments for a new trial, the appellate court may appropriately instruct the district court to enter judgment against the jury-verdict winner. Appellate authority to make this determination is no less when the evidence is rendered insufficient by the removal of erroneously admitted testimony than it is when the evidence, without any deletion, is insufficient.
Bonnie Weisgram died of carbon monoxide poisoning during a fire in her home. Her son, petitioner Chad Weisgram, individually and on behalf of her heirs (Weisgram), brought this diversity action in the District Court seeking wrongful death damages. Weisgram alleged that a defect in a heater, manufactured by defendant Marley Company and located in Bonnie Weisgram's home, caused both the fire and her death. At trial, Weisgram introduced the testimony of three witnesses, proffered as experts, in an endeavor to prove the alleged heater defect and its causal connection to the fire. The District Court overruled Marley's objections that this testimony was unreliable and therefore inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 as elucidated by Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469, 113 S. Ct. 2786.
At the close of Weisgram's evidence, and again at the close of all the evidence, Marley unsuccessfully moved under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of proof on the issues of defect and causation. The jury returned a verdict for Weisgram. Marley again requested judgment as a matter of law, and additionally requested, in the alternative, a new trial, pursuant to Rules 50 and 59; among arguments in support of its post-trial motions, Marley reasserted that the expert testimony essential to prove Weisgram's case was unreliable and therefore inadmissible. The District Court denied the motions and entered judgment for Weisgram. The Eighth Circuit panel held that Marley's motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted because the testimony of Weisgram's expert witnesses, the sole evidence supporting the product defect charge, was speculative and not shown to be scientifically sound, and was therefore incompetent to prove plaintiffs' case. The court then considered the remaining evidence in the light most favorable to Weisgram, found it insufficient to support the jury verdict, and directed judgment as a matter of law for Marley. Although recognizing its discretion to remand for a new trial under Rule 50(d), the court rejected any contention that it was required to do so, stating that this was not a close case, plaintiffs had had a fair opportunity to prove their strict liability claim, they failed to do so, and there was no reason to give them a second chance.
Does Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 permit an appellate court to direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law when it determined that evidence was erroneously admitted and that the remaining evidence was insufficient?
The court found unconvincing Weisgram's fears that allowing appellate courts to direct the entry of judgment for defendants would have punished plaintiffs who could have shored up their cases by other means had they known their expert testimony was inadmissible. After holding Weisgram's expert testimony inadmissible, the appellate court evaluated the evidence presented at trial, and found the properly admitted evidence insufficient to support the verdict. Weisgram offered no specific grounds for a new trial. The appellate court did not abuse its discretion by directing entry of judgment for Marley Company, instead of returning the case to the district court for further proceedings.
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