Saturday, December 10, 2011

Appeal Victory -- Million Dollar Verdict Reversed

On the old show, The 'A' Team, the trademark phrase of one of the main characters was, "I love it when a plan comes together."  I sometimes think of that when a detailed litigation plan finally comes to fruition.  We were hired by some very nice people to save them from a terrible trial verdict, and after a tough fight in the appeal court we got them a fantastic result.  Here is how it came about.

Our client's business, we'll call it ACME, suffered a crushing defeat when the plaintiff company convinced a trial jury that ACME had caused nearly a million dollars in damages when it allegedly breached a contract between the two businesses. ACME and its trial counsel consulted with our firm to see if anything could be done on appeal.

After a close examination of the record and all the testimony at trial, we agreed to handle the appeal. There was no way to justify the jury's award. The damage award consisted of different components, and they did not make sense when taken together. For example, the jury did not award any future damages on one cause of action, but did on another. But there was no way the defendant could have suffered damages in one instance and not the other, if any damages were suffered at all. Additionally, the judge had handled the admission of the evidence in a very poor manner. We decided to attack the damage award on the basis of a lack of substantial evidence.

By way of background, challenging a verdict by claiming that it was not supported by substantial evidence is usually viewed as a long shot. As set forth in a civil appeal treatise:
"The 'substantial evidence rule' is one of the most formidable hurdles facing appellants after a trial on the merits. When the case was tried on its merits, the court of appeal invokes several presumptions in support of the judgment. All evidentiary conflicts are resolved in favor of the judgment; and, so long as the judgment was supported by "substantial evidence," the appellate court will not reweigh the evidence."
Even the term "substantial evidence" is a complete misnomer. It implies that the verdict will be reversed if the plaintiff cannot show some appreciable amount of evidence, but in reality the verdict will be upheld if plaintiff can show any evidence that supports the verdict. You see, it is the province of the jury to decide whom to believe. Take the case of a traffic accident, where the case comes down to whether a traffic light was red or green. The jury is specifically instructed that even if 20 witnesses testify that the light was green, and only one testifies that the light was red, the jury can find that the light was red. In such a case, the verdict would not be reversed on appeal for a lack of substantial evidence, because the testimony of the one witness is sufficient to support the verdict. This is an essential rule if the advocacy system is going to work. If a case was decided simply by counting the number of witnesses who said one thing versus the number that said the opposite, then a party with no scruples who is willing to pack the witness stand with lying witnesses would always win.
Facing the daunting Substantial Evidence Rule, we took the Court of Appeal through each item of damages, and showed that nowhere in the record did any evidence exist that would support the verdict. The attorneys for the plaintiff company tried valiantly to refute our arguments, pointing to testimony and exhibits that they claimed supported the verdict. In response, we showed why each alleged item of evidence was defective.

After quoting the law on substantial evidence, and explaining that "every substantial conflict in the evidence is to be resolved in favor of the judgment," in a rare move the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment, agreeing that no evidence had been presented to the jurors that could justify the verdict.  Just like that, we took a million dollar burden off the back of our clients.  I love it when a plan comes together.

-- Aaron Morris

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