Is the trial court’s denial of new trial, reversible because appellant court finds court’s express statement of reasons for denial legally inconsistent, even though absent that statement the judgment would have been affirmed?

Posted in: Appellate Review, Trial Practice by Steven Vartabedian on

One lesson I learned from 29 years on the bench was to take care not to say too much when making a ruling. This can be difficult, because conscientious people tend to explain the reasoning behind a conclusion reached. David v. Hernandez (filed 5/22/14) 2d Civil No. B245342 demonstrates the trouble with saying too much.

Hernandez was a truck driver headed northbound on the Pacific Coast Highway when he decided to pull off of the highway to park. Because there was no available parking on the right side of the road, he made a left turn into a parking area adjacent to the southbound lane. After taking a nap, he started driving again, stopping short of the southbound lane, checking that there was no immediate traffic, and proceeding to start his left turn into the northbound lane. The time was 8:39 p.m., four minutes before the end of civil twilight and 25 minutes after sunset. Hernandez’ vehicle made it into the northbound lane, but the end of the attached trailer was still a bit in the southbound lane when struck by plaintiff David’s vehicle. David had no recollection of the collision; his passenger saw a dark obstruction in their lane of traffic, saw David react, and then the crash happened. Just before the collision, she and David wanted to listen to music on her laptop, but she could not get the power to work.

David and his passenger sued for negligence. At trial, the jury was instructed on negligence per se, that liability would follow if it found that as a result of a relevant statutory violation, which was a substantial factor in causing harm, plaintiffs were injured. The violations claimed included parking on and re-entering the roadway from the wrong side of the highway, including failing to yield the right-of-way; and failing to properly signal a turning motion. The jury found that Hernandez was negligent, but his negligence was not a substantial factor causing the harm. Plaintiffs’ motion for new trial was denied, and plaintiffs appealed on grounds of verdict inconsistency, insufficient evidence, and erroneous denial of motion for new trial. The Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six, reversed.

In denying the motion for new trial, the trial court had stated that Hernandez violated the Vehicle Code by parking his truck on the wrong side of the highway, and that the tail end of his truck would not have been in the southbound lane of the highway but for his entering the highway from the wrong side; but there was “sufficient evidence through expert testimony that a jury could have found a reasonable driver who was paying attention to his or her driving and the road in front of him or her would have seen the truck bed in their lane in time to take evasive action and that the lack of attention on the part of the plaintiff driver was in fact the cause of the accident.”

In exercising its discretion, the trial court could have simply stated that it found the verdicts legally consistent, and that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s verdict. I dare say the trial court would have been affirmed as is reflected by the appellate court rejecting plaintiff’s first two arguments: the special verdict was neither inconsistent nor unsupported by substantial evidence because the jury could have reasonably concluded the collision was caused by David’s inattentiveness rather than any act of negligence committed by Hernandez. But, nonetheless, the denial of the motion for new trial here was error, in the appellate court’s view, because the trial court specified that but for Hernandez’s statutory violation, his truck would not have been in the southbound lane. It’s specified reason for denying the motion was not reasonable in light of the California Supreme Court’s pronouncement in In re Ethan C. (2012) 54 Cal.4th 610, 640, that an actor’s wrongful conduct operating concurrently with other contemporaneous forces to produce harm necessarily is a substantial factor if the injury “would not have occurred but for that conduct.”

As an aside, I am not so sure that the trial court saying “the truck’s tail end would not have been in the southbound lane but for its having entered from the right lane,” is the same as saying but for that conduct, the injury would not have occurred. But the point of this blog is that trial court should not even have gone there to talk about matters unnecessary to its ruling on the motion for new trial. And the appellate court here acknowledged that all intendments would have normally inured in favor of the ruling except where, in its view, “the legal error strikes at the heart of the motion.”

So it might not be a bad idea for counsel arguing against a motion for new trial to suggest to the trial court that it need not state its reasons (Laabs v. City of Victorville (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 1242, 1272); that an order denying a new trial will be upheld if the record shows any basis upon which it may be upheld (Landrum v. Severin (1951) 37 Cal.2d 24, 28). “Less” can be “more.”

The information contained in this blog is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. No recipients, clients or otherwise, should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content included in this blog without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from an attorney licensed in the recipient's state. The content of this blog contains general information and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. The Firm expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all the contents of this blog.