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Ahsan v. Staples, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. New York

March 21, 2017

MOSTAFA R. AHSAN, Plaintiff,
v.
STAPLES, INC., and STAPLES THE OFFICE SUPERSTORE EAST, INC., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          STEVEN M. GOLD United States Magistrate Judge

         Presently before the Court is plaintiff's motion for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1)(A). See Docket Entry 118. For the reasons set forth in this Memorandum and Order, plaintiff's motion is denied.

         Background

         This personal injury action arises out of events that took place on September 2, 2011, in a store operated by defendant Staples The Office Superstore East, Inc. (“Staples”).[1] See Compl., Docket Entry 1. Plaintiff Mostafa R. Ahsan (“Ahsan”) claims that, while shopping in the Staples store, he was hit by boxes that fell from a shelf, causing him to sustain a traumatic brain injury (“TBI”), as well as neck and shoulder injuries. Declaration of Durga P. Bhurtel at 16-17, dated December 21, 2016, Docket Entry 118-1; Tr. 17-20.[2] Staples concedes that its negligence caused one or two boxes to fall from a shelf on the date of plaintiff's accident, but it disputes the nature and extent of plaintiff's alleged injuries and whether its negligence proximately caused plaintiff to sustain any injuries at all.[3] Defendant's Memorandum in Opposition (“Def.'s Mem.”) at 1, Docket Entry 122; see also Stipulation, dated April 14, 2016, Docket Entry 80. After a six-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict for Staples, finding that its negligence did not proximately cause any injury to plaintiff. See Docket Entry 113.

         Plaintiff now moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, claiming that the verdict was “contrary to the weight of the credible evidence.” Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support (“Pl.'s Mem.”) at 4, Docket Entry 118-3. Plaintiff also asserts for the first time in his reply that an exemplar of the plastic file folders contained within the type of boxes that fell on plaintiff was improperly received in evidence.[4] Plaintiff's Reply Memorandum (“Reply Mem.”) at 7-8, Docket Entry 125. For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion is denied.

         Discussion

         I. Legal Standards

         A court may grant a new trial where the “jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A); Crews v. County of Nassau, 149 F.Supp.3d 287, 292 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (quoting DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 133 (2d Cir. 1998)). While a court may grant a motion for a new trial “even if there is substantial evidence supporting the jury's verdict, ” the Second Circuit has made it clear that such a motion may be granted only “when the jury's verdict is egregious.” DLC Mgmt., 163 F.3d at 134 (citation omitted). Accordingly, a motion for a new trial should be denied “unless the trial court is convinced that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or that the verdict is a miscarriage of justice.” Munafo v. Metro. Transp. Auth., 381 F.3d 99, 105 (2d Cir. 2004) (citations omitted); Depascale v. Sylvania Elec. Prods., Inc., 710 F.Supp.2d 275, 285 (E.D.N.Y. 2010).

         In contrast to the standard applicable to a motion for judgment as a matter of law, a court deciding whether to grant a motion for a new trial “is free to weigh the evidence [itself] and need not view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner.” Song v. Ives Labs., Inc., 957 F.2d 1041, 1047 (2d Cir. 1992) (quoting Bevevino v. Saydjari, 574 F.3d 676, 684 (2d Cir. 1978)). Nevertheless, “[w]here the resolution of the issues depended on assessment of the credibility of the witnesses, it is proper for the court to refrain from setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial.” Metromedia Co. v. Fugazy, 983 F.2d 350, 363 (2d Cir. 1992), abrogated on other grounds as noted in Yung v. Lee, 432 F.3d 142 (2d Cir. 2005); see also DLC Mgmt., 163 F.3d at 134 (“[A] court should rarely disturb a jury's evaluation of a witness's credibility.”); Dunlap-McCuller v. Riese Org., 980 F.2d 153, 158 (2d Cir. 1992) (“[W]e caution that the jury is empowered and capable of evaluating a witness's credibility, and this evaluation should rarely be disturbed.”).

         Where, as here, a party seeks a new trial based in part upon an evidentiary ruling, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 61 provides the applicable standard. See Kogut v. County of Nassau, 2013 WL 3820826, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. July 22, 2013). Under Rule 61,

[u]nless justice requires otherwise, no error in admitting or excluding evidence-or any other error by the court or a party-is ground for granting a new trial, for setting aside a verdict, or for vacating, modifying, or otherwise disturbing a judgment or order. At every stage of the proceeding, the court must disregard all errors and defects that do not affect any party's substantial rights.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 61. Thus, even if evidence has been admitted in error, a new trial may not be granted unless the error affected a litigant's “substantial rights.” Stowe v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 793 F.Supp.2d 549, 568 (E.D.N.Y. 2011). “[A] substantial right has been affected only where a jury's judgment was likely to have been ‘swayed by the error.'” Parrish v. Sollecito, 280 F.Supp.2d 145, 165 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) (quoting Perry v. Ethan Allen, Inc., 115 F.3d 143, 150 (2d Cir. 1997)). Relevant to the analysis is “whether or not the evidence bears on an issue that is plainly critical to the jury's decision” and “whether or not the evidence was emphasized in arguments to the jury.” Hynes v. Coughlin, 79 F.3d 285, 291 (2d Cir. 1996) (citations omitted).

         II. Analysis

         A. Weight of the Evidence

         As noted above, Staples stipulated prior to trial that it was negligent in allowing boxes to fall from a shelf. It remained for the jury to decide, though, whether defendant's conceded negligence proximately caused any of the injuries claimed by plaintiff. Ultimately, the jury found that plaintiff did not sustain any injuries that were caused by the boxes that fell in the Staples store. Jury Verdict, Court Ex. 1, Docket Entry 113. Plaintiff claims that, in reaching that verdict, the jury disregarded the “overwhelming proof of causation” presented at trial. Pl.'s Mem. at 3. On plaintiff's Rule 59 motion, the only question before the Court is whether the jury's verdict was “so against the weight of the evidence as to constitute a seriously erroneous result, or a miscarriage of justice.” Depascale, 710 F.Supp.2d at 285 (citation and quotation marks omitted). Having presided over the trial, and having carefully reviewed the evidence presented, I conclude that it was not.

         As described in greater detail below, the jury was presented with conflicting evidence at trial. Plaintiff and the treating doctors he called to testify described a variety of injuries suffered by plaintiff and attributed them to the accident in the Staples store. Plaintiff's claims of injury were impeached, however, with his own inconsistent statements about how the accident occurred, his repeated failures to provide treating physicians with complete and accurate accounts of his pre-existing conditions, and evidence of his post-accident activities that seemed inconsistent with the injuries and limitations he described. The doctors who treated plaintiff and testified on his behalf at trial were cross-examined about plaintiff's prior injuries and complaints and ultimately acknowledged at least some uncertainty about the degree to which plaintiff's injuries were caused by the accident in the Staples store. Finally, defendant's medical experts testified that plaintiff's medical records did not include any objective findings indicating that plaintiff suffered traumatic, as opposed to degenerative or age-related, injuries. Defendant's experts also called into serious question the theory proposed by plaintiff's expert to explain how plaintiff sustained a brain injury as a result of the falling boxes. The jury apparently chose to credit the testimony and other evidence indicating that any injuries plaintiff sustained or symptoms he suffered were caused by circumstances other than the falling Staples boxes, and it was reasonable and within its province to do so.

         1. Plaintiff's Case

         Plaintiff claimed in his trial testimony that he sustained injuries to his head, neck, and left shoulder as a result of the accident at the Staples store on September 2, 2011. Plaintiff was 56 years old at the time of the accident. Tr. 22, 291-92. Plaintiff testified that, after the accident, he experienced “constant pain” in these areas and that he was prescribed pain medication as a result. Tr. 610-13, 619-23, 630, 633-34. Plaintiff also described attending physical therapy, taking medication, and receiving multiple injections to relieve pain in his cervical spine and left shoulder. Tr. 611-12, 614-15, 619-21, 634-37, 640-46. In December 2014, plaintiff underwent surgery to repair a partial tear in his left shoulder revealed by an MRI. Tr. 623-24. After the surgery, plaintiff testified, he “had so many pains” that he could not work or perform basic functions like taking a shower. Tr. 629. Around the same time, plaintiff testified, he experienced “headache[s], dizziness[, ] . . . blurry vision[, ] [a]nd . . . double vision, ” as well as short-term memory loss. Tr. 648, 665. In 2015, while receiving epidural injections, plaintiff testified that he could not “twist [his] head left to right or right to left.” Tr. 645.

         Finally, plaintiff testified that, as early as 2008, well before the accident in the Staples store, he experienced neck and shoulder pain and a months-long headache, but that the neck pain was usually relieved with physical therapy. Tr. 651-53. Plaintiff also acknowledged seeing a pain management doctor because of the discomfort he felt in his neck even before the Staples accident. Tr. 653. With respect to the impact of the accident on his ability to engage in various activities, plaintiff described being an avid painter and working as a graphic designer and testified ...


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