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Weisgram v. Marley Company

United States Supreme Court


February 22, 2000

CHAD WEISGRAM, ET AL., PETITIONERS V. MARLEY COMPANY ET AL.

Court Below: 169 F.3d 514

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 1999

WEISGRAM v. MARLEY CO.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

WEISGRAM et al. v. MARLEY CO. et al.

Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eighth Circuit

No. 99-161.

Argued January 18, 2000

Decided February 22, 2000

Bonnie Weisgram died of carbon monoxide poisoning during a fire in her home. Her son, petitioner Chad Weisgram, individually and on behalf of her heirs (hereinafter Weisgram), brought this diversity action in the District Court seeking wrongful death damages. Weisgram alleged that a defect in a heater, manufactured by defendant (now respondent) Marley Company and located in Bonnie Weisgram's home, caused both the fire and her death. At trial, Weisgram introduced the testimony of three witnesses, proffered as experts, in an endeavor to prove the alleged heater defect and its causal connection to the fire. The District Court overruled Marley's objections that this testimony was unreliable and therefore inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 as elucidated by Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Ginsburg

Opinion of the Court

WEISGRAM v. MARLEY CO.

____ U. S. ____ (2000)

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eighh Circuit

This case concerns the respective authority of federal trial and appellate courts to decide whether, as a matter of law, judgment should be entered in favor of a verdict loser. The pattern we confront is this. Plaintiff in a product liability action gains a jury verdict. Defendant urges, unsuccessfully before the federal district court but successfully on appeal, that expert testimony plaintiff introduced was unreliable, and therefore inadmissible, under the analysis required by Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U. S. 579 (1993). Shorn of the erroneously admitted expert testimony, the record evidence is insufficient to justify a plaintiff's verdict. May the court of appeals then instruct the entry of judgment as a matter of law for defendant, or must that tribunal remand the case, leaving to the district court's discretion the choice between final judgment for defendant or a new trial of plaintiff's case?

Our decision is guided by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, which governs the entry of judgment as a matter of law, and by the Court's pathmarking opinion in Neely v. Martin K. Eby Construction Co., 386 U. S. 317 (1967). As Neely teaches, courts of appeals should "be constantly alert" to "the trial judge's first-hand knowledge of witnesses, testimony, and issues"; in other words, appellate courts should give due consideration to the first-instance decisionmaker's " `feel' for the overall case." Id., at 325. But the court of appeals has authority to render the final decision. If, in the particular case, the appellate tribunal determines that the district court is better positioned to decide whether a new trial, rather than judgment for defendant, should be ordered, the court of appeals should return the case to the trial court for such an assessment. But if, as in the instant case, the court of appeals concludes that further proceedings are unwarranted because the loser on appeal has had a full and fair opportunity to present the case, including arguments for a new trial, the appellate court may appropriately instruct the district court to enter judgment against the jury-verdict winner. Appellate authority to make this determination is no less when the evidence is rendered insufficient by the removal of erroneously admitted testimony than it is when the evidence, without any deletion, is insufficient.

I.

Firefighters arrived at the home of Bonnie Weisgram on December 30, 1993, to discover flames around the front entrance. Upon entering the home, they found Weisgram in an upstairs bathroom, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Her son, petitioner Chad Weisgram, individually and on behalf of Bonnie Weisgram's heirs, brought a diversity action in the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota seeking wrongful death damages. He alleged that a defect in an electric baseboard heater, manufactured by defendant (now respondent) Marley Company and located inside the door to Bonnie Weisgram's home, caused both the fire and his mother's death.*fn1

At trial, Weisgram introduced the testimony of three witnesses, proffered as experts, in an endeavor to prove the alleged defect in the heater and its causal connection to the fire. The District Court overruled defendant Marley's objections, lodged both before and during the trial, that this testimony was unreliable and therefore inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 as elucidated by Daubert. At the close of Weisgram's evidence, and again at the close of all the evidence, Marley unsuccessfully moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of proof on the issues of defect and causation. The jury returned a verdict for Weisgram. Marley again requested judgment as a matter of law, and additionally requested, in the alternative, a new trial, pursuant to Rules 50 and 59; among arguments in support of its post-trial motions, Marley reasserted that the expert testimony essential to prove Weisgram's case was unreliable and therefore inadmissible. App. 123-125. The District Court denied the motions and entered judgment for Weisgram. App. to Pet. for Cert. A28-A40. Marley appealed.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that Marley's motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted. 169 F. 3d 514, 517 (1999). Writing for the panel majority, Chief Judge Bowman first examined the testimony of Weisgram's expert witnesses, the sole evidence supporting plaintiffs' product defect charge. Id., at 518-522. Concluding that the testimony was speculative and not shown to be scientifically sound, the majority held the expert evidence incompetent to prove Weisgram's case. Ibid. The court then considered the remaining evidence in the light most favorable to Weisgram, found it insufficient to support the jury verdict, and directed judgment as a matter of law for Marley. Id., at 516-517, 521-522. In a footnote, the majority "reject[ed] any contention that [it was] required to remand for a new trial." Id., at 517, n. 2. It recognized its discretion to do so under Rule 50(d), but stated: "[W]e can discern no reason to give the plaintiffs a second chance to make out a case of strict liability . . . . This is not a close case. The plaintiffs had a fair opportunity to prove their claim and they failed to do so." Ibid. (internal citations omitted). The dissenting judge disagreed on both points, concluding that the expert evidence was properly admitted and that the appropriate remedy for improper admission of expert testimony is the award of a new trial, not judgment as a matter of law. Id., at 522, 525 (citing Midcontinent Broadcasting Co. v. North Central Airlines, Inc., 471 F. 2d 357 (CA8 1973)).

Courts of appeals have divided on the question whether Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 permits an appellate court to direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law when it determines that evidence was erroneously admitted at trial and that the remaining, properly admitted evidence is insufficient to constitute a submissible case.*fn2 We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict, 527 U. S. 1069 (1999),*fn3 and we now affirm the Eighth Circuit's judgment.

II.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, reproduced below, governs motions for judgment as a matter of law in jury trials.*fn4 It allows the trial court to remove cases or issues from the jury's consideration "when the facts are sufficiently clear that the law requires a particular result." 9A C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure §2521, p. 240 (2d ed. 1995) (hereinafter Wright & Miller). Subdivision (d) controls when, as here, the verdict loser appeals from the trial court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law:

"[T]he party who prevailed on that motion may, as appellee, assert grounds entitling the party to a new trial in the event the appellate court concludes that the trial court erred in denying the motion for judgment. If the appellate court reverses the judgment, nothing in this rule precludes it from determining that the appellee is entitled to a new trial, or from directing the trial court to determine whether a new trial shall be granted."

Under this Rule, Weisgram urges, when a court of appeals determines that a jury verdict cannot be sustained due to an error in the admission of evidence, the appellate court may not order the entry of judgment for the verdict loser, but must instead remand the case to the trial court for a new trial determination. Brief for Petitioner 20, 22; Reply Brief 1, 17. Nothing in Rule 50 expressly addresses this question.*fn5

In a series of pre-1967 decisions, this Court refrained from deciding the question, while emphasizing the importance of giving the party deprived of a verdict the opportunity to invoke the discretion of the trial judge to grant a new trial. See Cone v. West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co., 330 U. S. 212, 216-218 (1947); Globe Liquor Co. v. San Roman, 332 U. S. 571, 573-574 (1948); Johnson v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co., 344 U. S. 48, 54, n. 3 (1952); see also 9A Wright & Miller, §2540, at 370. Then, in Neely, the Court reviewed its prior jurisprudence and ruled definitively that if a motion for judgment as a matter of law is erroneously denied by the district court, the appellate court does have the power to order the entry of judgment for the moving party. 386 U. S., at 326; see also Louis, Post-Verdict Rulings on the Sufficiency of the Evidence: Neely v. Martin K. Eby Construction Co. Revisited, 1975 Wis. L. Rev. 503 (surveying chronologically Court's decisions bearing on appellate direction of judgment as a matter of law).

Neely first addressed the compatibility of appellate direction of judgment as a matter of law (then styled "judgment n.o.v.") with the Seventh Amendment's jury trial guarantee. It was settled, the Court pointed out, that a trial court, pursuant to Rule 50(b), could enter judgment for the verdict loser without offense to the Seventh Amendment. 386 U. S., at 321 (citing Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U. S. 243 (1940)). "As far as the Seventh Amendment's right to jury trial is concerned," the Court reasoned, "there is no greater restriction on the province of the jury when an appellate court enters judgment n.o.v. than when a trial court does"; accordingly, the Court concluded, "there is no constitutional bar to an appellate court granting judgment n.o.v." 311 U. S., at 322 (citing Baltimore & Carolina Line, Inc. v. Redman, 295 U. S. 654 (1935)). The Court next turned to "the statutory grant of appellate jurisdiction to the courts of appeals [in 28 U. S. C. §2106],"*fn6 which it found "certainly broad enough to include the power to direct entry of judgment n.o.v. on appeal." 311 U. S., at 322. The remainder of the Neely opinion effectively complements Rules 50(c) and 50(d), providing guidance on the appropriate exercise of the appellate court's discretion when it reverses the trial court's denial of a defendant's Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law. Id., at 322-330; cf. supra, note 5 (1963 observation of Advisory Committee that, as of that year, "problems [concerning motions for judgment coupled with new trial motions] ha[d] not been fully canvassed").

Neely represents no volte-face in the Court's understanding of the respective competences of trial and appellate forums. Immediately after declaring that appellate courts have the power to order the entry of judgment for a verdict loser, the Court cautioned:

"Part of the Court's concern has been to protect the rights of the party whose jury verdict has been set aside on appeal and who may have valid grounds for a new trial, some or all of which should be passed upon by the district court, rather than the court of appeals, because of the trial judge's first-hand knowledge of witnesses, testimony, and issues -- because of his `feel' for the overall case. These are very valid concerns to which the court of appeals should be constantly alert." 311 U. S., at 325.*fn7

Nevertheless, the Court in Neely continued, due consideration of the rights of the verdict winner and the closeness of the trial court to the case "do[es] not justify an ironclad rule that the court of appeals should never order dismissal or judgment for the defendant when the plaintiff's verdict has been set aside on appeal." Id., at 326. "Such a rule," the Court concluded, "would not serve the purpose of Rule 50 to speed litigation and to avoid unnecessary retrials." Ibid. Neely ultimately clarified that if a court of appeals determines that the district court erroneously denied a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the appellate court may (1) order a new trial at the verdict winner's request or on its own motion, (2) remand the case for the trial court to decide whether a new trial or entry of judgment for the defendant is warranted, or (3) direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law for the defendant. Id., 327-330; see also 9A Wright & Miller §2540, at 371-372.

III.

The parties before us -- and court of appeals opinions -- diverge regarding Neely's scope. Weisgram, in line with some appellate decisions, posits a distinction between cases in which judgment as a matter of law is requested based on plaintiff's failure to produce enough evidence to warrant a jury verdict, as in Neely, and cases in which the proof introduced becomes insufficient because the court of appeals determines that certain evidence should not have been admitted, as in the instant case.*fn8 Insufficiency caused by deletion of evidence, Weisgram contends, requires an "automatic remand" to the district court for consideration whether a new trial is warranted. Brief for Petitioner 20, 22; Reply Brief 1, 3-6; Tr. of Oral Arg. 6, 18, 23.*fn9

Weisgram relies on cases holding that, in fairness to a verdict winner who may have relied on erroneously admitted evidence, courts confronting questions of judgment as a matter of law should rule on the record as it went to the jury, without excising evidence inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. See, e.g., Kinser v. Gehl Co., 184 F. 3d 1259, 1267, 1269 (CA10 1999); Schudel v. General Electric Co., 120 F. 3d 991, 995-996 (CA9 1997); Jackson v. Pleasant Grove Health Care Center, 980 F. 2d 692, 695-696 (CA11 1993); Midcontinent Broadcasting, 471 F. 2d, at 358. But see Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F. 3d 1153, 1198-1200 (CA3 1993). These decisions are of questionable consistency with Rule 50(a)(1), which states that in ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court is to inquire whether there is any "legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for [the opponent of the motion]." Inadmissible evidence contributes nothing to a "legally sufficient evidentiary basis." See Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 509 U. S. 209, 242 (1993) ("When an expert opinion is not supported by sufficient facts to validate it in the eyes of the law, or when indisputable record facts contradict or otherwise render the opinion unreasonable, it cannot support a jury's verdict.").*fn10

As Neely recognized, appellate rulings on post-trial pleas for judgment as a matter of law call for the exercise of "informed discretion," 386 U. S., at 329, and fairness to the parties is surely key to the exercise of that discretion. But fairness concerns should loom as large when the verdict winner, in the appellate court's judgment, failed to present sufficient evidence as when the appellate court declares inadmissible record evidence essential to the verdict winner's case. In both situations, the party whose verdict is set aside on appeal will have had notice, before the close of evidence, of the alleged evidentiary deficiency. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 50(a)(2) (motion for judgment as a matter of law "shall specify . . . the law and facts on which the moving party is entitled to the judgment"). On appeal, both will have the opportunity to argue in support of the jury's verdict or, alternatively, for a new trial. And if judgment is instructed for the verdict loser, both will have a further chance to urge a new trial in a rehearing petition.*fn11

Since Daubert, moreover, parties relying on expert evidence have had notice of the exacting standards of reliability such evidence must meet. 509 U. S. 579; see also Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U. S. 137 (1999) (rendered shortly after the Eighth Circuit's decision in Weisgram's case);*fn12 General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U. S. 136 (1997). It is implausible to suggest, post-Daubert, that parties will initially present less than their best expert evidence in the expectation of a second chance should their first try fail. We therefore find unconvincing Weisgram's fears that allowing courts of appeals to direct the entry of judgment for defendants will punish plaintiffs who could have shored up their cases by other means had they known their expert testimony would be found inadmissible. See Brief for Petitioner 18, 25. In this case, for example, although Weisgram was on notice every step of the way that Marley was challenging his experts, he made no attempt to add or substitute other evidence. See Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, 497 U. S. 871, 897 (1990) ("[A] litigant's failure to buttress its position because of confidence in the strength of that position is always indulged in at the litigant's own risk.").

After holding Weisgram's expert testimony inadmissible, the Court of Appeals evaluated the evidence presented at trial, viewing it in the light most favorable to Weisgram, and found the properly admitted evidence insufficient to support the verdict. 169 F. 3d, at 516-517. Weisgram offered no specific grounds for a new trial to the Eighth Circuit.*fn13 Even in the petition for rehearing, Weisgram argued only that the appellate court had misapplied state law, did not have the authority to direct judgment, and had failed to give adequate deference to the trial court's evidentiary rulings. App. 131-151. The Eighth Circuit concluded that this was "not a close case." 169 F. 3d, at 517, n. 2. In these circumstances, the Eighth Circuit did not abuse its discretion by directing entry of judgment for Marley, instead of returning the case to the District Court for further proceedings.

Neely recognized that there are myriad situations in which the determination whether a new trial is in order is best made by the trial judge. 386 U. S., at 325-326. Neely held, however, that there are also cases in which a court of appeals may appropriately instruct the district court to enter judgment as a matter of law against the jury-verdict winner. Id., at 326. We adhere to Neely's holding and rationale, and today hold that the authority of courts of appeals to direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law extends to cases in which, on excision of testimony erroneously admitted, there remains insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict.

For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is

Affirmed.


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