Weisgram v. Marley Co.
Annotate this Case
528 U.S. 440 (2000)
OCTOBER TERM, 1999
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., 509 U. S. 579. 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. The District Court denied the motions and entered judgment for Weisgram. The Eighth Circuit panel held that Marley's motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted because the testimony of We is gram's expert witnesses, the sole evidence supporting the product defect charge, was speculative and not shown to be scientifically sound, and was therefore incompetent to prove plaintiffs' case. 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. Although recognizing its discretion to remand for a new trial under Rule 50(d), the court rejected any contention that it was required to do so, stating that this was not a close case, plaintiffs had had a fair opportunity to prove their strict liability claim, they failed to do so, and there was no reason to give them a second chance.
Held: Rule 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. Pp. 447-457.
(a) Rule 50(d), which controls when, as here, the verdict loser appeals from the trial court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law, provides: "[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 .... 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." Rule 50 does not expressly address Weisgram's contention that, under subdivision (d), 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. Neely v. Martin K. Eby Constr. Co., 386 U. S. 317, ruled definitively that if a court of appeals determines that the district court erroneously denied a defendant's 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., at 327-330. Pp.447-452.
(b) The authority of courts of appeals to direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law extends to cases such as the present one in which, on the appellate court's excision of erroneously admitted testimony, there remains insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict. Contrary to Weisgram's contention, that authority is not limited to cases exemplified by Neely in which judgment as a matter of law is requested based on plaintiff's failure to produce enough evidence to warrant a jury verdict. Weisgram asserts that insufficiency caused by deletion of evidence on appeal requires an "automatic remand" to the district court for consideration whether a new trial is warranted. His assertion draws support from Court of Appeals decisions 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. The decisions on which Weisgram relies 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
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