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Hipolito M. Chacoan v. Dr. Rohrer

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


March 27, 2012

HIPOLITO M. CHACOAN,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
DR. ROHRER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Morrison C. England, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This case proceeded to a jury trial on January 30, 2012. On February 3, 2012, the jury reached a verdict in favor of Defendants Dr. Traquina and Dr. Naku. Plaintiff now moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule*fn1 of Civil Procedure 59.

STANDARD

Under Rule 59(a), the court may grant a new trial "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a). For example, the Court may grant a new trial if "the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, or is based upon evidence which is false, or to prevent, in the sound discretion of the court, a miscarriage of justice." Silver Sage Partners, Ltd. v. City of Desert Hot Springs, 251 F.3d 814, 818-819 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted).

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff asserts two general arguments in support of the motion for a new trial. First, Plaintiff argues that the jury's verdict in favor of both Dr. Naku and Dr. Traquina was contrary to the clear weight of the evidence. Second, Plaintiff maintains that the court's decision to not instruct the jury on Plaintiff's proffered special instructions constituted legal error.*fn2

A. Clear Weight of the Evidence

Plaintiff's argument as to Dr. Traquina rests on his contention that Dr. Traquina, the chief medical officer at the prison where Plaintiff was incarcerated, knew that patients were "falling through the cracks," yet did nothing to alleviate the problem. Plaintiff maintains that this fatal error in the medical operation Dr. Traquina oversaw resulted in Plaintiff's injury. Thus, Plaintiff argues, the jury's finding that Defendant was not deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical need was contrary to the clear weight of the evidence.

Dr. Traquina counters that, even if, as Plaintiff maintains, Dr. Traquina was aware that some inmates with routine problems were "falling through the cracks," that, in and of itself, does not demonstrate the jury's conclusion that Dr. Traquina was not deliberately indifferent to Chacoan's serious medical needs was clearly contradicted by the weight of the evidence presented at trial. Dr. Traquina testified that he was under serious budgetary restraints that required a concentration on high risk patients. Moreover, for "routine patients whose care was delayed, [Dr. Traquina] relied on their complaints, either written or oral; letters or telephone calls from their families; or formal inmate grievances, also known as 602 appeals." (Dr. Traquina's Opp'n, filed March 5, 2012, [ECF No. 205] at 3:7-10.) Dr. Traquina also points out that when he received such notice, he personally reviewed the inmates case to rectify existing problems.

Thus, Dr. Traquina avers the jury's finding - that Dr. Traquina was not deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical needs - did not conflict with the clear weight of the evidence.

With regard to Defendant Dr. Naku, Plaintiff argues that the jury's conclusion that Dr. Naku was not deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's medical needs was contrary to the clear weight of the evidence because he testified that, despite being aware of Plaintiff's ear condition, he took no steps to ensure that Plaintiff received the surgery he needed. Naku counters that the jury did not erroneously find that he was not deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's ear condition because Dr. Naku is not an ear, nose and throat specialist. Naku also notes that the evidence showed that he consistently provided Plaintiff with antibiotics which, according to Dr. Lustig, Plaintiff's surgeon at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco, is an appropriate manner to treat infections associated with Plaintiff's ear condition.

The court must apply a stringent standard to Plaintiff's argument that the verdict reached cannot be reconciled with the weight of the evidence. Digidyne Corp. v. Data General Corp., 734 F.2d 1336, 1347 (9th Cir. 1984). A motion for new trial may be granted on this ground only if the verdict is against the "great weight" of the evidence or if "it is quite clear that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result." Id., see also Venegas v. Wagner, 831 F.2d 1514, 1519 (9th Cir. 1987).

It would amount to an abuse of discretion on the part of the court to grant a new trial on any lesser showing, and the court cannot extend relief simply because it would have arrived at a different verdict. Silver Sage Partner, LTD v. City of Desert Hot Springs, 251 F.3d 814, 818-19 (9th Cir. 2001).

The Court finds that Plaintiff has not presented a compelling argument for granting the extraordinary remedy sought. In the Court's view, there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could have reached its conclusion that neither Dr. Naku nor Dr. Traquina were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical needs. As to Dr. Traquina, the parties presented conflicting evidence regarding whether Dr. Traquina was deliberately indifferent. Indeed, the court specifically referenced this conflicting evidence in denying Dr. Traquina's Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law. It is clear that the jury found credible Dr. Traquina's testimony that, given the circumstances, he took sufficient precautions to ensure that those prisoners with serious medical needs did not slip through the cracks. Indeed, Dr. Lustig testified that his system was similar to that employed by Dr. Traquina and that some routine scheduling matters still fell through the cracks. To this end, the Court cannot find that the jury's determination that Dr. Traquina was not deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical need was contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

Plaintiff's arguments with regard to Dr. Naku are similarly unavailing. Specifically, the evidence showed that, even if it was not the ideal course of action, Dr. Naku saw Plaintiff on a number of occasions and administered the treatment he thought appropriate at the time - the same treatment Dr. Lustig testified was appropriate for Plaintiff's ear condition. This evidence, combined with the fact that Dr. Naku was not an ear, nose and throat specialist, provided the jury with sufficient evidence to find that Dr. Naku was not deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical needs. Consequently Plaintiff's motion for new trial against Dr. Naku on grounds of insufficiency of the evidence must be denied.

B. Plaintiff's Special Jury Instructions

Plaintiff's second argument in seeking a new trial rests with his contention that the court committed clear legal error by failing to give special jury instructions 20a and 21a. Proposed special instruction 20a requested the court to deviate from the Ninth Circuit's Model Jury instructions regarding supervisory liability under 42. U.S.C. § 1983 (Section 1983). Plaintiff argues that his proffered special instruction regarding supervisory liability should have been given in light of the Ninth Circuit's recent decision in Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202 (9th Cir. 2011).

Specifically, Plaintiff maintains that Starr changed the scope of supervisory liability in this Circuit, and thus, the Ninth Circuit's model civil jury instruction 9.3 - the instruction the court ultimately gave - was insufficient to apprise the jury of the current contours of supervisory liability under Section 1983. Plaintiff's proposed special instruction 21a requested the court give a specific instruction regarding what constitutes a serious medical need in accordance with Lolli v. Cnty of Orange, 351 F.3d 410 (9th Cir. 2003). Plaintiff argues that this instructions should have been given to avoid jury confusion.

Defendant contends that failure to give proposed instruction 20a was not in error because Starr did not alter the law upon which the standard jury instruction used by the court was based. Defendant further maintains that Plaintiff has offered no evidence to show that failure to give Plaintiff's proposed jury instruction 21a misled the jury in any regard. Further, Defendants argue that, by following the Ninth Circuit's Model Instruction 9.25 regarding deliberate indifference to serious medical need, the court did not abuse its discretion.

A new trial may be required when the court offers incorrect jury instructions that "infect[] the deliberative process of the jury with regard to its evaluation of the" claims presented. Bateman v. Mnemonics, Inc., 79 F.3d 1532, 1549 (11th Cir. 1996). The district "court's formulation of the jury instructions" is within the discretion of the court. Masson v. New Yorker Magazing, Inc., 85 F.3d 1394, 1397 (9th Cir. 1996).

A challenge to the district court's composition of the jury instructions cannot be successfully challenged unless "the instructions, considered as a whole, were inadequate or misleading." Id.

The court finds unavailing Plaintiff's contention that the court clearly committed legal error by omitting Plaintiff's proposed special jury instructions and instead relying on the Ninth Circuit's Model Civil Jury Instructions for Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims. First, contrary to Plaintiff's contention, Starr did not create a new legal standard regarding supervisory liability under § 1983; it merely held that the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) did not eliminate supervisory liability from the scope of Section 1983. Id. at 2258. After concluding that it did not, the court reaffirmed the long-standing 9th Circuit standards governing supervisory liability under Section 1983. Id. at 2262-2263. To this end, the court did not err in utilizing Ninth Circuit Model Jury Instruction 9.3.

Second, Plaintiff's contention that the court's failure to give Plaintiff's requested jury instruction defining serious medical need necessitates a new trial is similarly unpersuasive. Indeed, Plaintiff's contention is belied by his own previous filings - Plaintiff, in his trial brief, expressly stated that it was undisputed that Mr. Chacoan has a serious medical need.*fn3

(Pl.'s Trial Brief, filed Nov. 17, 2011, [ECF No 140] at 9:19.) If there was no dispute as to whether Plaintiff had a serious medical need, the Court cannot surmise how lack of an instruction as to what constitutes a serious medical need detrimentally misled or confused the jury. Thus, the Court finds that it did not commit error in denying Plaintiff's request to include Plaintiff's proffered special instruction 21a.

Plaintiff has simply failed to show that the court's employment of the Ninth Circuit's Model Jury Instructions constituted such clear error to merit the extraordinary remedy of a new trial. Thus, Plaintiff's motion for a new trial on the basis of denying Plaintiff's requested special jury instructions is denied.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons set forth above, Plaintiff's motion for a new trial is DENIED.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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