In American legal culture, the determinations of juries are afforded considerable deference. Nevertheless, juries do make mistakes, and courts then must step in and order new trials in the interest of justice. However, those who benefit from an initial jury’s ruling are generally not amenable to a trial court ordering a new trial. Indeed, the propriety of a trial court order directing that there be a new trial was at the center of Botta v. Florida Power & Light Co., a recent decision from Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal that involved a collision between an FPL truck and the vehicle of another motorist.
The events at issue in Botta were set in course by a nighttime power outage. After receiving a report of the outage, FPL sent out a truck to investigate. The technician sent to investigate the outage parked his truck along the side of a road but did not set up any reflective markers behind the truck to indicate its presence. In addition, there was disputed evidence as to whether the truck’s warning lights had been activated. Some time after the technician parked, a car being operated by the plaintiff in this case collided with the truck. The plaintiff testified that he believed the truck was in motion at the time of the accident and that he attempted to brake prior to the collision. However, a witness to the accident testified that he did not see the car decelerate before the collision. In addition, there was a dispute of fact regarding whether the headlights of the plaintiff’s vehicle were illuminated at the time of the accident. The plaintiff was severely injured as a result of the crash and needed to have his arm amputated.
Following the accident, the plaintiff brought suit against FPL, alleging various theories of negligence. The case progressed to a trial, at which one principal issue in dispute was the condition of the plaintiff’s eyesight. After deliberating, the jury found that FPL was liable for the crash and awarded the plaintiff over one million dollars in damages. FPL moved for a new trial, and the trial court granted the motion, finding that the jury’s conclusion that the plaintiff had no fault was against the weight of the evidence. The plaintiff then brought the current appeal, challenging the trial court’s decision granting a new trial.
As courts often do, the Fourth District Court of Appeal split the difference and concluded that although it was within the discretion of the trial court to award a new trial, the scope of the trial should be limited. As an initial matter, trial courts may in their discretion order a new trial when the verdict is “against the manifest weight of the evidence.” Brown v. Estate of Stuckey, 749 So. 2d 490, 498 (Fla. 1999). In this case, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was within the scope of the trial court’s discretion to order a new trial, based on the trial court’s determination that the jury’s finding of no comparative negligence on the part of the plaintiff was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Indeed, the Fourth District noted that the evidence showed that the plaintiff had crashed into a motionless vehicle. Furthermore, with respect to the disputed evidence regarding the plaintiff’s vision and conduct leading up to the accident, the Fourth District noted that the trial judge was in the best position to assess the witnesses’ credibility and make a finding that there was some negligence on the plaintiff’s part. In light of the evidence, the Court of Appeal found that a reasonable person could conclude that the trial judge was correct in determining that the manifest weight of the evidence established at least some negligence on the plaintiff’s part.
Although the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial judge was within his discretion to order a new trial, it did note that the scope of the new trial should be limited. Indeed, the order granting FPL’s motion for a new trial was limited to the jury’s finding that the plaintiff was in no way liable. The trial court, however, did not find that the jury’s findings on negligence on the part of FPL or the resulting damages were against the manifest weight of the evidence. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal found that it was proper that the new trial be limited to any negligence the plaintiff had in causing the accident, rather than involving any redeterminations regarding either FPL’s negligence or the scope of the damages. Even though the scope of the new trial is limited, it should be noted that a determination of negligence on the plaintiff’s part will reduce the plaintiff’s compensation pursuant to Florida’s comparative negligence scheme.
Although auto accident cases are typically considered straightforward legal matters, Botta shows that even a purportedly simple case can lead to multiple trials and a trip to an appellate court. Indeed, anyone harmed as a result of another party’s possible negligence should consider finding experienced counsel prior to undertaking legal action. The South Florida car accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented numerous injured Florida drivers, and they are ready to provide you with counsel in a potential lawsuit. If you’ve recently been injured in an auto accident and are curious about your options for recovery, feel free to contact us and arrange a free case consultation.