Johnson v. New York, N.H. & H. R. Co.
344 U.S. 48 (1952)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Johnson v. New York, N.H. & H. R. Co., 344 U.S. 48 (1952)

Johnson v. New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Co.

No. 40

Argued October 23-24, 1952

Decided November 17, 1952

344 U.S. 48

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

At the close of the evidence in a suit in a federal district court under the Jones Act for wrongful death, defendant moved to dismiss the complaint and for a directed verdict in its favor. The court reserved decision on the motion and submitted the case to the jury. A verdict was returned for plaintiff, and judgment was entered thereon. Within ten days after reception of the verdict, defendant moved to have it set aside, but did not move for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The court denied plaintiff's motion to set aside the verdict and denied the pre-verdict motions for dismissal and for a directed verdict. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the motion for a directed verdict should have been granted, and reversed the judgment of the district court.

Held: Under Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court of Appeals could not direct entry of a judgment for defendant notwithstanding the verdict. Pp. 344 U. S. 49-54.

(a) In the absence of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict made in the trial court within ten days after reception of the verdict, Rule 50(b) forbids the trial judge or an appellate court to enter such a judgment. P. 344 U. S. 50.

(b) Defendant's motion to set aside the verdict cannot be treated as a motion to enter judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Pp. 344 U. S. 50-51 .

(c) The trial judge's express reservation of decision on the motion for a directed verdict did not relieve defendant from the duty under Rule 50(b) to make a motion after the verdict for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Pp. 344 U. S. 51-54.

(d) Defendant is entitled only to a new trial, not to a judgment in its favor. P. 344 U. S. 54.

194 F.2d 194, judgment vacated and cause remanded.

In a suit under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, for wrongful death, the District Court rendered judgment for the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals reversed. 194 F.2d

Page 344 U. S. 49

194. This Court granted certiorari. 343 U.S. 975. Judgment vacated and cause remanded, p. 344 U. S. 54.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case raises questions concerning the power of a Court of Appeals to render judgment for a defendant instead of merely ordering a new trial after it has set aside a jury verdict and trial court judgment for a plaintiff.

The petitioner sued the respondent railroad under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, for wrongful death of her husband. When the evidence was all in, the railroad moved to dismiss the complaint and also asked for a directed verdict in its favor on the grounds that no negligence had been proven and that the deceased had been responsible for his own death. The trial court reserved decision on the motion, submitted the case to the jury, a verdict of $20,000 was returned for petitioner, and judgment was entered on the verdict. Within ten days after reception of the verdict, the railroad moved to have the verdict set aside on the ground that it was excessive, contrary to the law, to the evidence, to the weight of the evidence. More than two months later, this motion was denied; in the same order denying that motion, the court also denied the pre-verdict motions for dismissal and for a directed verdict on which action had been reserved prior to verdict. Holding that the motion for a directed verdict should have been granted, the Court of Appeals reversed. 194 F.2d 194. Both parties agree that this reversal requires the District Court to enter judgment for the railroad notwithstanding the verdict,

Page 344 U. S. 50

thereby depriving petitioner of another trial. Whether the Court of Appeals could direct such a judgment consistently with Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure [Footnote 1] is the single question we granted certiorari to review. 343 U.S. 975.

On several recent occasions we have considered Rule 50(b). We have said that, in the absence of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict made in the trial court within ten days after reception of a verdict, the rule forbids the trial judge or an appellate court to enter such a judgment. Cone v. West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co.,330 U. S. 212. We repeated that construction of the rule in Globe Liquor Co. v. San Roman,332 U. S. 571, and reemphasized it in Fountain v. Filson,336 U. S. 681.

Although this respondent made several motions, it did not, as the rule requires, move within ten days after verdict "to have judgment entered in accordance with his [its] motion for a directed verdict." We are told, however, in respondent's brief that its motion to set aside the verdict "was intended to be a motion for judgment in its favor or for a new trial," and that,

"[o]bviously respondent did not merely want the verdict to be set aside, but wanted the relief that invariably follows such a setting aside on the grounds urged: a judgment in its favor or a new

Page 344 U. S. 51

trial."

The defect in this argument is that respondent's motions cannot be measured by its unexpressed intention or wants. Neither the trial judge nor the Court of Appeals appears to have treated the motion to set aside the verdict as asking for anything but that. And surely petitioner is not to have her opportunity to remedy any shortcomings in her case jeopardized by a failure to fathom the unspoken hopes of respondent's counsel. Respondent's motion should be treated as nothing but what it actually was -- one to set aside the verdict -- not one to enter judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Respondent separately argues that a trial judge's express reservation of decision on motion for a directed verdict relieves a party from any duty whatever under 50(b) to make a motion for judgment after verdict. This contention not only flies in the teeth of the rule's unambiguous language, but, if sustained, would undermine safeguards for litigants some of which have been pointed out in prior cases. The rule carefully sets out the steps and procedures to be followed by the parties as a prerequisite to entry of judgments notwithstanding an adverse jury verdict. Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan,311 U. S. 243, 311 U. S. 250. It was adopted following confusion in this field brought about in part by three cases decided by this Court, Slocum v. New York Life Ins. Co.,228 U. S. 364; Baltimore & Carolina Line, Inc. v. Redman,295 U. S. 654, and Aetna Ins. Co. v. Kennedy,301 U. S. 389. The Slocum case was understood to hold that the Seventh Amendment forbade United States courts to enter judgments in favor of one party after jury verdict in favor of the other. The Redman case, tried in New York, held that the Seventh Amendment did not forbid entry of judgment notwithstanding a verdict where, prior to the verdict, the trial judge, following New York procedure, had expressly reversed his decision on a motion for a directed verdict. The New York District Court was authorized

Page 344 U. S. 52

to follow this state practice because of the Conformity Act, R.S.1878, § 914. Thus, the Redman case did not purport to adopt New York procedure for the general guidance of federal courts. Later, the Kennedy case cast doubt on the Redman holding, at least as to its scope. In the Kennedy case, plaintiff's request for directed verdict had not been followed by a timely motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, as required by Pennsylvania law. Failure to conform to this Pennsylvania practice was a reason given by this Court for finding lack of power in the District Court to enter judgment contrary to the verdict. [Footnote 2]

Rule 50(b) was designed to provide a precise plan to end the prevailing confusion about directed verdicts and motions for judgments notwithstanding verdicts. State procedure was no longer to control federal courts, as it had in the Redman and Kennedy cases. Federal courts were to be guided by this new rule, which provided its own exclusive procedural program. It rejected the New York procedure applied in the Redman case, which permitted judgment to be set aside even though no motion to do so had been filed after verdict. Instead, it approached more closely the Pennsylvania rule, relied

Page 344 U. S. 53

on in the Kennedy case, under which judgments contrary to verdicts would not be awarded in the absence of specific timely motions for them. But Rule 50(b) departed from the New York and Pennsylvania procedures by making it wholly unnecessary for a judge to make an express reservation of his decision on a motion for directed verdict. The rule itself made the reservation automatic. A court is always "deemed to have submitted the action to the jury subject to a later determination" of the right to a direct verdict if a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict is made "[w]ithin 10 days after the reception of a verdict. . . ." This requirement of a timely application for judgment after verdict is not an idle motion. This verdict solves factual questions against the post-verdict movant, and thus emphasizes the importance of the legal issues. The movant can also ask for a new trial either for errors of law or on discretionary grounds. The requirement for timely motion after verdict is thus an essential part of the rule, firmly grounded in principles of fairness. See Cone v. West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co., supra, at 330 U. S. 217-218. Poor support for its abandonment would be afforded by the mere fact that a judge makes an express reservation of a decision which the rule reserves regardless of what the judge does.

Rule 50(b), as written and as construed by us, is not difficult to understand or to observe. Rewriting the rule to fit counsel's unexpressed wants and intentions would make it easy to reintroduce the same type of confusion and uncertainty the rule was adopted to end. In 1946, this Court was asked to adopt an amendment to the rule which would have given appellate courts power to enter judgments for parties who, like this respondent, had made no timely motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. We did not adopt the amendment then. 5 Moore, Federal Practice (2d ed.1951)

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