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Baker v. Cottrell, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 20, 2019

JOHN BAKER, Plaintiff,
COTTRELL, INC, Defendant.


         This matter is before the court on multiple post-trial motions filed by plaintiff John Baker and defendant Cottrell, Inc. (Doc. Nos. 146, 148, 150, 152.) On February 5, 2019, those motions came before the court for hearing. Attorneys Brian Wendler and Michael Stone-Molloy appeared on behalf of plaintiff, and attorney Amy Lorenz-Moser appeared on behalf of defendant. Having considered the parties' briefing, the court will deny the motions.


         The facts of this case have been laid out in prior orders of this court and will be repeated here only as relevant. Plaintiff's complaint alleged that he was injured after falling from a ladder on June 18, 2014, which he claimed was defectively designed and had worn feet. (Doc. No. 1 (“Compl.”) at ¶¶ 11, 14.) The complaint sought damages on theories of strict liability, negligence, and breach of express and/or implied warranty. (Id. at ¶ 14.)

         The case proceeded to trial on September 25, 2018, and on September 28, 2018, the jury returned its verdict, finding defendant liable on a theory of negligence. (Doc. No. 132.) The jury found that plaintiff and defendant were each 50% at fault for the injuries suffered by plaintiff and that plaintiff sustained $100, 000.00 in economic damages, plus an additional $175, 000.00 in noneconomic damages. (Id.) Judgment was entered that same day. (Doc. No. 133.) On October 26, 2018, the parties cross-moved for judgment as a matter of law, or alternatively for a new trial. (Doc. Nos. 146, 150.) Plaintiff moved for the imposition of sanctions (Doc. No. 152), and defendant moved for relief from judgment under Rule 60. (Doc. Nos. 148.)


         A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Rule 50(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides as follows:

If a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue, the court may: (A) resolve the issue against the party; and (B) grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against the party on a claim or defense that, under the controlling law, can be maintained or defeated only with a favorable finding on that issue.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) governs renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law made (“JMOL”) under Rule 50(a) and provides that the court may: “(1) allow judgment on the verdict, if the jury returned a verdict; (2) order a new trial; or (3) direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law.” The Ninth Circuit has held:

A Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law is not a freestanding motion. Rather, it is a renewed Rule 50(a) motion. Under Rule 50, a party must make a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law before a case is submitted to the jury. If the judge denies or defers ruling on the motion, and if the jury then returns a verdict against the moving party, the party may renew its motion under Rule 50(b). Because it is a renewed motion, a proper post-verdict Rule 50(b) motion is limited to the grounds asserted in the pre-deliberation Rule 50(a) motion. Thus, a party cannot properly “raise arguments in its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) that it did not raise in its preverdict Rule 50(a) motion.” Freund v. Nycomed Amersham, 347 F.3d 752, 761 (9th Cir. 2003) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 50 advisory committee's notes to the 1991 amendments (“A post trial motion for judgment can be granted only on grounds advanced in the preverdict motion.”)); Murphy v. City of Long Beach, 914 F.2d 183, 186 (9th Cir. 1990) (“[Judgment notwithstanding the verdict] is improper if based upon grounds not alleged in a directed verdict [motion].” (brackets in original)); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 advisory committee's notes to the 2006 amendments (“Because the Rule 50(b) motion is only a renewal of the preverdict motion, it can be granted only on grounds advanced in the preverdict motion.”). However, Rule 50(b) “may be satisfied by an ambiguous or inartfully made motion” under Rule 50(a). Reeves v. Teuscher, 881 F.2d 1495, 1498 (9th Cir. 1989). Absent such a liberal interpretation, “the rule is a harsh one.” Nat'l Indus., Inc. v. Sharon Steel Corp., 781 F.2d 1545, 1549 (11th Cir. 1986).

EEOC v. Go Daddy Software, Inc., 581 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 2009).

         In considering a Rule 50 motion, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party in whose favor the jury returned a verdict and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. First Nat'l Mortg. Co. v. Fed. Realty Inv. Tr., 631 F.3d 1058, 1067 (9th Cir. 2011); Lakeside-Scott v. Multnomah County, 556 F.3d 797, 802 (9th Cir. 2009); Josephs v. Pac. Bell, 443 F.3d 1050, 1062 (9th Cir. 2006); City Sols., Inc. v. Clear Channel Commc'ns, 365 F.3d 835, 839 (9th Cir. 2004); see also A.D. v. Cal. Highway Patrol, 712 F.3d 446, 453 (9th Cir. 2013) (in evaluating a Rule 50 motion the court should “give significant deference to the jury's verdict and to the nonmoving parties”). “A district court can set aside a jury verdict and grant JMOL only if, under governing law, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict and only if there is no legally sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue.” Jules Jordan Video, Inc. v. 144942 Can. Inc., 617 F.3d 1146, 1155 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal citation and quotation omitted). See also A.D., 712 F.3d at 453 (“Such a judgment is proper if the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's verdict.”) (quoting Pavao v. Pagay, 307 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 2002)); First Nat'l Mortg. Co., 631 F.3d at 1067-68 (the court “must disregard evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe, and may not substitute its view of the evidence for that of the jury”); Lakeside-Scott, 556 F.3d at 802 (“Judgment as a matter of law is proper when the evidence permits only one reasonable conclusion and the conclusion is contrary to that reached by the jury.”) (quoting Ostad v. Or. Health Scis. Univ., 327 F.3d 876, 881 (9th Cir. 2003)).

         Rule 50 also provides that if the court does not grant a motion for JMOL, the movant may make an alternative request for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). 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 including, but 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. S. 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 Constr. Co. v. Royal Bank of Can., 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), 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.”).

         B. Motion for Sanctions

         Courts possess the inherent power “to sanction a litigant for bad-faith conduct.” Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 35 (1991). But inherent powers must be exercised with “restraint and discretion” and with the aim of “achiev[ing] the orderly and expeditious disposition of [a] case[ ].” Id. at 43-44. Generally, to be deserving of such sanctions, a litigant must have engaged in “willful disobedience of a court order” or “acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons.” Id. at 45-46 (quoting Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240, 257-59 (1975)). Mere recklessness is not enough to warrant the imposition of sanctions, and a court must “specifically find bad faith or conduct tantamount to bad faith...[or] improper purpose[.]” Fink v. Gomez, 239 F.3d 989, 994 (9th Cir. 2001).

         C. Motion for ...

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