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Supreme Court Clarifies Guidelines for Appellate Review of Civil Judgments Based on 'Manifest Weight of Evidence'

Justices Rule Motion at Trial for Directed Verdict, New Trial or ‘JNOV’ Is Not Required

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2011-0606.  Eastley v. Volkman, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-2179.
Scioto App. Nos. 09CA3308 and 09CA3309, 2010-Ohio-4771.  Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
O'Connor, C.J., and Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Pfeifer, J., dissents and would dismiss the appeal as having been improvidently accepted.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-2179.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(May 22, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio held today that when the evidence to be considered is in the trial record, a court of appeals may consider an appellant’s claim that a civil judgment was “against the manifest weight of the evidence” regardless of whether the appellant moved at trial for a directed verdict, a new trial, or judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

The court also explained that, in civil lawsuits as in criminal cases, the “sufficiency” of the evidence is quantitatively and qualitatively different than the “weight” of the evidence.

Applying that analysis to a decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeals, the court held that one member of a three-judge panel erred in holding that appellate review of the weight of the evidence had been forfeited.  Because this error deprived the panel of a unanimous consideration of the issue, the court of appeals was ordered to reconsider the case and address the appellant’s claim that the jury’s verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

The court’s 6-1 decision was authored by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.

The case involved a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Paula Eastley against Dr. Paul Volkman and Tri-State Healthcare LLC, a Portsmouth pain-management clinic where Dr. Volkman practiced.  The complaint, which was amended to also assert negligence claims against Denise Huffman, the principal owner of Tri-State, alleged that the defendants had caused the death of Eastley’s son, Steven Hieneman.

During a jury trial before the Scioto Court of County Common Pleas, Eastley presented evidence that 33-year-old Hieneman received treatment at the clinic and died April 20, 2005, due to the acute combined effects of oxycodone, Xanax (alprazolam), and Valium (diazepam) that Dr. Volkman had prescribed the previous day. Eastley’s evidence against Huffman, a non-physician, related to allegations of negligent operation of the clinic in causing Hieneman’s death. At the conclusion of Eastley’s evidence, Huffman moved for a directed verdict on the grounds that there was no evidence in the record from which the jury could conclude that she was negligent. After the motion was denied, Huffman presented defense evidence but did not renew her directed verdict motion either after she rested or at the close of all the evidence.

The jury found that Volkman’s medical malpractice and Huffman’s negligence had proximately caused Hieneman’s death, and the trial court entered judgment in Eastley’s favor in the amount of $500,000 against Huffman and Volkman, jointly and severally.

Huffman appealed the verdict to the Fourth District Court of Appeals, arguing in part that because Volkman had admitted that he was an independent contractor, Huffman could not be held vicariously liable for Volkman’s actions. She also asserted that, once Volkman’s conduct was removed from the analysis, there was no basis to hold her liable because there was no evidence that she violated a duty of care owed to Hieneman.

Two of the three judges on the court of appeals panel agreed with Huffman that based on an ordinary negligence theory, the jury’s verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence.  The remaining judge dissented in part and concluded that because Huffman had not renewed her motion for a directed verdict or filed a motion for new trial or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, she had forfeited her right to appellate review of the weight of the evidence. Because Article IV, Section 3(B)(3) of the Ohio Constitution requires that a court of appeals may reverse a jury verdict based on the manifest weight of the evidence only by a unanimous vote of all three appellate judges, the third judge’s partial dissent required the Fourth District to enter a judgment affirming the trial court’s verdict against Huffman.

In today’s decision, Justice Lanzinger wrote that the Supreme Court agreed to review the Fourth District’s action “to clarify when and upon what standard a court of appeals must review the weight of the evidence in a case.”

Citing language from the dissenting judge’s opinion, Justice Lanzinger wrote that confusion existed between the distinct concepts of sufficiency of evidence and the manifest weight of evidence in civil cases. Quoting from the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in State v. Thompkins, Justice Lanzinger wrote: “In Thompkins, we described ‘sufficiency’ as ‘a term of art meaning that legal standard which is applied to determine whether the case may go to the jury or whether the evidence is legally sufficient to support the jury verdict as a matter of law.’ ...  In essence, sufficiency is a test of adequacy. Whether the evidence is legally sufficient to sustain a verdict is a question of law.”

“(E)ven if a trial court judgment is sustained by sufficient evidence, an appellate court may nevertheless conclude that the judgment is against the manifest weight of the evidence: ‘Weight of the evidence concerns “the inclination of the greater amount of credible evidence, offered in a trial, to support one side of the issue rather than the other. It indicates clearly to the jury that the party having the burden of proof will be entitled to their verdict, if, on weighing the evidence in their minds, they shall find the greater amount of credible evidence sustains the issue which is to be established before them. Weight is not a question of mathematics, but depends on its effect in inducing belief.”’”

Justice Lanzinger emphasized that, while Thompkins was a criminal case, the court’s analysis of the distinction between sufficiency and weight of evidence in that decision is equally applicable to civil lawsuits like the wrongful death action in this case. She wrote: “because ‘manifest weight of the evidence’ refers to a greater amount of credible evidence and relates to persuasion, it does not matter that the burden of proof differs in criminal and civil cases. In a civil case, in which the burden of persuasion is only by a preponderance of the evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, evidence must still exist on each element (sufficiency) and the evidence on each element must satisfy the burden of persuasion (weight).”

“When a court of appeals determines that a jury verdict is against the weight of the evidence, it should remand the case for a new trial. ... A court of appeals panel has the power to so act, provided it acts unanimously and reverses only once on manifest weight of the evidence.  These restrictions protect the jury verdict and safeguard against arbitrary remand.  We therefore make clear today that in civil cases, as in criminal cases, the sufficiency of the evidence is quantitatively and qualitatively different from the weight of the evidence.”

In rejecting the dissenting judge’s finding that Huffman waived her right to appellate review of the weight of the evidence in this case, Justice Lanzinger wrote: “The dissenting judge concluded that because Huffman had not moved for a directed verdict at the close of all evidence or filed motions for jnov (judgment notwithstanding the verdict) or a new trial after the jury’s verdict, she had waived her appeal on the manifest weight of the evidence. These motions are governed by distinct standards. Civ.R. 50(A) motions for directed verdict do not present factual issues but instead present questions of law. ... The same is true for a Civ.R. 50(B) jnov motion.”

“Because motions for directed verdict and for jnov present questions based on the sufficiency of the evidence, submitting one or both of these motions is clearly not a prerequisite for appellate review on the manifest weight of the evidence. Nor is a motion for a new trial a prerequisite for appellate review of the weight of the evidence. As R.C. 2321.01 explains, ‘[a] motion for a new trial is not necessary as a prerequisite to obtain appellate review of the sufficiency or weight of the evidence submitted to the trial court where such evidence to be considered appears as a part of the record filed in the appellate court.’”

“Nothing in the rules or statutes require a party to have made a particular motion before seeking appellate review of a jury verdict on the weight of the evidence. Nor do the cases cited in the dissenting appellate judge’s opinion support his assertion that Huffman waived appellate review of the weight of the evidence by failing to raise certain motions in the trial court. ... We now hold that when the evidence to be considered is in the court’s record, a party need not have moved for directed verdict or filed for a new trial or for jnov to obtain appellate review of the weight of the evidence.”

In returning the case to the Fourth District for reconsideration, Justice Lanzinger concluded: “Reversal on the manifest weight of the evidence and remand for a new trial is not to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, we express no thought on whether the court of appeals should reverse the judgment and grant a new trial in this case. It may be that the dissenting judge believes that the weight of the evidence supports the jury’s verdict, and in that event, the verdict will be affirmed again. We simply remand for consideration of the issue based upon the appropriate standard.”

Justice Lanzinger’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell and Yvette McGee Brown.  Justice Robert R. Cupp concurred in judgment only. Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented, indicating that he would dismiss Huffman’s appeal as having been improvidently accepted by the court.

Contacts
Thomas M. Spetnagel, 740.774.2142, for Paula Eastley, Administratrix of the Estate of Steven Hieneman.

M. Jason Founds, 614.228.5151, for Denise Huffman d.b.a. Tri-State Health Care.