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Harbridge v. Hall

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 30, 2018

HALL, LEE, and TUCKER, Defendants.


         Plaintiff, Christopher Harbridge, is a state prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis in this civil rights action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The case proceeded to jury trial only on plaintiff's claim for deliberate indifference to his serious medical need in violation of his rights under the Eighth Amendment against defendants Hall, Lee and Tucker. The trial commenced on May 2, 2017. On May 5, 2017, the jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants and judgment was entered. On June 2, 2017, plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial. (Doc. No. 23.) Defendant filed an opposition to that motion on June 20, 2017. (Doc. No. 204.) On July 5, 2017, plaintiff filed a reply. (Doc. No. 205.)

         Plaintiff asserts that the jury's verdict was contrary to the weight of evidence with respect to defendants Tucker and Hall. Plaintiff contends that he presented evidence at trial satisfying all the elements for deliberate indifference as to defendant Tucker, who plaintiff claims had knowledge of plaintiff's injuries. (Doc. No. 203 at 1.) Plaintiff also argues that defendant Tucker admitted to exhibiting deliberate indifference in testifying that he had the ability to summon medical treatment for plaintiff, but did not do so and in failing to inform his supervisor of plaintiff's need for medical assistance. (Id. at 1-2.) Plaintiff contends these same points hold true as to defendant Hall who plaintiff claims also had knowledge of plaintiff's injuries but did not provide a cane or crutches or follow-up with plaintiff. (Id. at 2.)

         Defendants counter that doubts about the correctness of the verdict are not grounds for the granting of a new trial. Rather, defendants contend that there must be a clear finding that the jury's verdict was reached in error. (Doc. No. 204 at 2.) Defendants emphasize that the evidence presented at trial confirmed that defendants Hall and Tucker were not deliberately indifferent to plaintiff's serious medical need because they clearly did not ignore plaintiff's swollen ankle and could not, therefore, be found liable. (Id. at 3.) They note defendant Hall's testimony showed that he offered to send plaintiff to the hospital for further treatment, but plaintiff refused, and that as a licensed vocational nurse, as opposed to a physician, Hall was not authorized to provide plaintiff with a cane or crutches. (Id.) Defendants also observe that defendant Tucker's trial testimony established that he was not deliberately indifferent to plaintiff's swollen ankle but, instead, immediately contacted medical staff and was informed that plaintiff already had an appointment for an x-ray, an explanation plaintiff appeared to accept. (Id. at 3-4.)

         The court agrees that the jury's verdict properly reflected a reasonable view of the evidence introduced at trial - that these defendants met their constitutional duty by offering to send plaintiff to the hospital and contacting medical staff. Nonetheless, below the court will specifically address some of the grounds raised in plaintiff's pending motion for a new trial.


         Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that, “[t]he court may, on motion, 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)(1)(A). Rather than specify the grounds on which a motion for a new trial may be granted, Rule 59 states that courts are bound by historically recognized grounds, which include, but are not limited to, claims “that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving.” Molksi v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Shimko v. Guenther, 505 F.3d 987, 992 (9th Cir. 2007) (“The trial court may grant a new trial only if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice.”) (citations omitted). The district court may correct manifest errors of law or fact, but the burden of showing that harmful error exists falls on the party seeking the new trial. Malhoit v. Southern Cal. Retail Clerks Union, 735 F.2d 1133 (9th Cir. 1984); see also 11 Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil 2d § 2803 (1995). When a party claims that a verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, the court should give full respect to the jury's findings and only grant a new trial if it “is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed” by the jury. Landes Const. Co., Inc. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1371-72 (9th Cir. 1987). “While the trial court may weigh the evidence and credibility of the witnesses, the court is not justified in granting a new trial merely because it might have come to a different result from that reached by the jury.” Roy v. Volkswagen of Am. Inc., 896 F.2d 1174, 1176 (9th Cir. 1990), opinion amended on denial of reh'g, 920 F.2d 618 (9th Cir. 1990); see also Silver Sage Partners, Ltd. v. City of Desert Hot Springs, 251 F.3d 814, 819 (9th Cir. 2001) (“[A]” district court may not grant a new trial simply because it would have arrived at a different verdict.”). The authority to grant a new trial under Rule 59 is left almost entirely to the discretion of the trial court. Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, 449 U.S. 33, 36 (1980).


         Plaintiff seeks a new trial on numerous grounds: (1) jury instruction error; (2) improper narration; (3) conspiracy theories and facts from dismissed claims; (4) prior bad acts; (5) defense counsel's credibility; (6) impropriety by the jurors; and (7) a request for transcripts. The court declines to address plaintiff's conspiracy theories as well as his arguments attacking this court's pretrial rulings on claims that were resolved prior to trial or those on the admissibility of evidence. These issues were addressed either before or during trial and the court need not revisit them. Accordingly, the court will address only plaintiff's contentions that: (1) the jury instructions were erroneous; and (2) the jurors at his trial engaged in misconduct.

         A. Erroneous Instruction

         Plaintiff takes issue with several instructions given to the jury at his trial. First, plaintiff complains of Jury Instruction Numbers 2 and 16. Instruction Number 2 provided:

To help you follow the evidence, I will give you a brief summary of the positions of the parties: The plaintiff asserts that defendants violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment by failing to provide or summon medical care for his left ankle and thigh injuries on May 2 to 4, 2006. The plaintiff has the burden of proving these claims.

         Instruction Number 16 described the Eight Amendment standard for deliberate indifference as follows:

Under the Eight Amendment, a prisoner has the right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.” This includes the right to receive timely and adequate medical treatment. In order to prove the defendants deprived the plaintiff of this right, the plaintiff must prove the ...

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