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Tate v. Wenger

October 6, 2006

CHRISTOPHER TATE PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL WENGER, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY. DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Curtis L. Collier

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court are Plaintiff Christopher Tate ("Plaintiff") and Defendant Michael Wenger's (Defendant) cross Motions for New Trial or in the Alternative, to Alter or Amend Judgment (Court File Nos. 111, 114) and Plaintiff's "Motion for Attorney Fees" (Court File No. 116). For the following reasons, the Court will DENY Plaintiff and Defendant's cross Motions for New Trial and Plaintiff's "Motion for Attorney Fees."

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review for a motion for new trial is well established. Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59, a court may set aside a jury verdict and grant a new jury trial "for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a). Courts have generally interpreted this language to allow a new trial when a jury has reached a "seriously erroneous result," which may occur when (1) the verdict is against the weight of the evidence; (2) the damages are excessive; or (3) the trial was unfair to the moving party in some fashion (i.e., the proceedings being influenced by prejudice or bias). Holmes v. City of Massillon, 78 F.3d 1041, 1045-46 (6th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted); Dalton v. Roane State Community College, 2006 WL 2167242, *1 (E.D. Tenn. July 31, 2006); West v. Media General Operations, Inc., 250 F. Supp. 2d 923, 930 (E.D. Tenn. 2002)(reversed on other grounds, 120 Fed. Appx. 601 (6th Cir. 2005).. A court exercises its discretion in disposing of a motion for new trial. See Anchor v. O'Toole, 94 F.3d 1014, 1021 (6th Cir. 1996); Davis v. Jellico Cmty. Hosp., Inc., 912 F.2d 129, 133 (6th Cir. 1990) (limiting a court's responsibility to preventing an injustice). The district court's decision is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Barnes v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 201 F.3d 815, 820 (6th Cir. 2000). Reversal is warranted only if the appellate court has "a definite and firm conviction that the trial court committed a clear error of judgment." Id. (quoting Logan v. Dayton Hudson Corp., 865 F.2d 789, 790 (6th Cir. 1989)).

In deciding whether to grant a new trial on the basis of prejudice through judicial error, the Court considers each argument under the umbrella of Fed. R. Civ. P. 61:

No error in either the admission or the exclusion of evidence and no error or defect in any ruling or order or in anything done or omitted by the court or by any of the parties is ground for granting a new trial . . . , unless refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice. The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties. "[N]ew trials are not to be granted on the grounds that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence 'unless that verdict was unreasonable.'" Barnes v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 201 F.3d 815, 820-21 (6th Cir. 2000) (quoting Holmes, 78 F.3d at 1047). "[C]courts are not free to reweigh the evidence and set aside the jury verdict merely because the jury could have drawn different inferences or conclusions or because judges feel that other results are more reasonable." Id. at 821 (citing Duncan v. Duncan, 377 F.2d 49, 52 (6th Cir.1967)). Hence, as long as a reasonable juror could have reached the challenged verdict, a new trial is improper. Barnes, 210 F.3d at 821 (citing Holmes, 78 F.3d at 1048).

II. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brought this case was based upon Tennessee state law assault and battery claims and a federal civil rights claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The case was tried to a jury starting on June 6, 2006 and the jury reached its verdict on June 14, 2006. The state law punitive damages aspect of the trial was held on July 25, 2006, and a verdict was rendered on the same day. The facts of this case were discussed in the memorandum accompanying the order granting partial summary judgment prior to trial and the Court will supplement those facts as needed (Memorandum, Court File No. 76). Plaintiff based his claims upon events surrounding his arrest by Chattanooga, Tennessee police officers in December 2003. He claimed he was subjected to excessive force when arrested and ill treated when he was hospitalized subsequent to arrest. Defendant denied the allegations and submitted evidence Plaintiff was on a three or four day crack induced crime spree that culminated in Plaintiff being pursued in a stolen car by members of the Chattanooga Police Department. Plaintiff admitted these allegations but testified he surrendered and raised his hands as ordered. After he surrendered, according to his testimony, he was knocked to the ground and beaten for no reason by Defendant. There were no witnesses to the events. However, Plaintiff did have photographs taken soon after the incident that showed substantial bruising and abrasions. Defendant testified he was chasing Plaintiff who did not surrender and when Plaintiff suddenly stopped and turned around, Defendant was unable to stop and ran into Plaintiff with Defendant's head contacting Plaintiff's head.

Thus, at trial two completely opposing version of events were given by Plaintiff and Defendant. During the trial, Plaintiff attempted to ask a witness about a Chattanooga city government practice or policy that indicates in some circumstances it may choose to indemnify certain city employees and police officers for certain judgments. However, as Plaintiff's counsel later conceded, the intentional tort that resulted in a damage award is not one of the circumstances discussed in the municipal policy statement. When Plaintiff raised the indemnification issue on cross examination with a witness, Defendant objected. The Court sustained the objection and was required to repeat the decision sustaining the objection several more times as Plaintiff's counsel continued to press the question. The jury was instructed to disregard the issue of indemnity.

At the conclusion of the case the jury found Plaintiff had not proven his § 1983 claim because Defendant proved he was entitled to qualified immunity defense even though the jury determined excessive force had been used. Thus, Plaintiff did not recover on the § 1983 claim. The jury also found Plaintiff did not prove the assault claim under Tennessee law. Plaintiff did prevail on the battery claim under Tennessee state law and the jury awarded Plaintiff $26,000 in medical expenses stemming from the hospitalization after his arrest (Court File No. 106). The Court reconvened the jury on July 25, 2006 to determine if punitive damages were appropriate. The jury found Defendant acted recklessly and caused actual damages to Plaintiff and awarded $7,500 (Court File No. 109). The Court will address each motion separately.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Plaintiff's Motion for New Trial

Plaintiff moves for additur, or in the alternative, a new trial arguing the jury verdict is inadequate, the jury was prejudiced by Defendant's counsel's closing arguments, and because the Court ...


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