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Chrishon WEBSTER v. HARTFORD ACCIDENT & INDEMNITY COMPANY
Relator, Chrishon Webster, seeks supervisory review of a July 22, 2021 judgment granting Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company's Motion for New Trial and reversing in part the court's previous April 26, 2021 judgment that had granted relator's Motion in Limine. For the following reasons, this writ is denied.
Ms. Webster filed a Motion in Limine to Exclude or Limit the Testimony of Joseph Cormier, who was offered by the defense as an expert witness in the areas of biomechanical engineering and accident reconstruction. In her motion, Ms. Webster argued that, pursuant to the Daubert standard and applying the recent holding of the Louisiana Supreme Court in Blair v. Coney, 19-0795 (La. 4/3/20), ––– So.3d ––––, 2020 WL 1675992, reh'g denied, 19-0795 (La. 7/9/20), 298 So.3d 168, Dr. Cormier should not be allowed to testify because the analysis he performed concerning the force of the vehicle impact at the time of the accident was not based on interviews, was based on assumptions from third parties as well as photographs, and included incorrect assumptions not supported by the record or evidence. She further argued that Dr. Cormier's testimony concerning whether the force could cause any injury is an opinion concerning medical causation outside the scope of his expertise as a biomechanical engineer.
At the hearing on the Motion in Limine, Hartford bore the burden of establishing Dr. Cormier's qualifications and the reliability of his methodology. However, Hartford presented no evidence or live testimony at the hearing. On April 26, 2021, the trial court rendered judgment granting Ms. Webster's motion and excluding Dr. Cormier's testimony. The judgment included eight pages of written reasons for judgment that detailed the trial court's reasoning and application of the Supreme Court's ruling in Blair.
Hartford timely filed a Motion for New Trial pursuant to La. C.C.P. arts. 1972 and 1973, arguing that the hearing on the Motion in Limine was not an evidentiary hearing because no evidence was presented, and that an affidavit from Dr. Cormier, acquired after the April 26, 2021 judgment, provides a sufficient basis for the granting of a new trial. At the hearing on the Motion for New Trial, the trial court considered the sworn testimony of Dr. Cormier, granted a new trial, and reversed part of its prior April 26, 2021 judgment by allowing Dr. Cormier to testify as an expert in the areas of biomechanical engineering and accident reconstruction, but excluding his testimony regarding medical causation.
In her application for supervisory writs, Ms. Webster argues that the trial court legally erred in granting the Motion for New Trial because the circumstances setting forth when a new trial shall be granted under La. C.C.P. arts. 1972 or 1973 were not met.
La. C.C.P. arts. 1972 and 1973 set for the exclusive grounds whereby a motion for new trial may be granted. Article 1972 states:
A new trial shall be granted, upon contradictory motion of any party, in the following cases:
(1) When the verdict or judgment appears clearly contrary to the law and the evidence.
(2) When the party has discovered, since the trial, evidence important to the cause, which he could not, with due diligence, have obtained before or during the trial.
(3) When the jury was bribed or has behaved improperly so that impartial justice has not been done.1
Article 1973 states:
A new trial may be granted in any case if there is good ground therefor, except as otherwise provided by law.
A trial court has great discretion in the granting of a new trial, and it will not be reversed on appeal absent a clear abuse of that discretion. Giglio v. ANPAC Louisiana Ins. Co., 20-209 (La. App. 5 Cir. 12/23/20), 309 So.3d 416, 422. As the Louisiana Supreme Court has noted, it is helpful for the trial court to state specific reasons for its ruling granting a new trial which greatly simplifies and assists the review process. Martin v. Heritage Manor S. Nursing Home, 00-1023 (La. 4/3/01), 784 So.2d 627, 633. No specific reasons for granting the new trial were identified in this instance, therefore we look to Articles 1972 and 1973 to determine whether grounds for a new trial were established.
It does not appear that the initial ruling of the trial court on the Motion in Limine was contrary to the law or evidence. The trial court's detailed reasons for judgment clearly set forth the standard of admissibility of expert testimony set forth in La. C.E. art. 702, reviewed the relevant jurisprudence, and evaluated the arguments presented by the parties at the hearing on the Motion in Limine. In its Motion for New Trial, Hartford argued that “the Court found that neither side had offered any evidence, and an evidentiary hearing had not been conducted.” However, this misstates the findings of the trial court in its written reasons for judgment, wherein the trial court clearly stated that the evidentiary burden was on Hartford and that burden was not met when Hartford failed to introduce evidence into the record. Therefore, section (1) of La. C.C.P. art. 1972 does not provide grounds for granting defendant a new trial.
Section (2) is another ground claimed by defendant in filing the Motion for New Trial. Defendant claims that Ms. Webster never requested the deposition of Dr. Cormier prior to filing her motion to exclude his testimony, and therefore Dr. Cormier's sworn affidavit should be considered “new” evidence. Hartford does not argue or explain how or why it could not have obtained this testimony prior to the original hearing. On this basis alone, the requirements of Section (2) have not been met. However, we note further that such an explanation, with specific allegations of fact, is required by La. C.C.P. art. 1975 which requires an affidavit verifying the allegations of fact setting forth the grounds for a motion for new trial when the motion is based on La. C.C.P. art. 1972(2) or (3). No such affidavit appears to have been including in Hartford's Motion for New Trial, and therefore, on this basis as well, Section (2) of La. C.C.P. art. 1972 does not provide grounds for granting Hartford a new trial. See Short v. Short, 11-3 (La. App. 5 Cir. 10/25/11), 77 So.3d 405, 411, writ denied, 11-2635 (La. 2/10/12), 80 So.3d 472.
The granting or denying of a motion for new trial pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1973 is within the discretion of the trial court. 131 Beverly Knoll, LLC v. Clipper Construction, LLC, 18-486 (La. App. 5 Cir. 5/15/19), 273 So.3d 1243. The breadth of the discretion to order a new trial varies with the facts and circumstance of each case. Myles v. Hospital Service District No. 1 of Tangipahoa Parish, 17-1014 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/6/18), 248 So.3d 545. The discretionary power to grant a new trial must be exercised with considerable caution. State, Dept. of Transp. and Development v. August Christina & Bros., Inc., 97-244 (La. App. 5 Cir. 2/11/98), 716 So.2d 372. The grant of a new trial is not to be used to give the losing party a second bite at the apple without facts supporting a miscarriage of justice that would otherwise occur. In re Gramercy Plant Explosion at Kaiser, 04-1151, (La. App. 5 Cir. 3/28/06), 927 So.2d 492, 502, (citing Joseph v. Broussard Rice Mill, Inc., 00-0628 (La. 10/30/00), 772 So.2d 94).
According to the transcript from the hearing on the Motion for New Trial, the court indicated that it was granting the motion on the basis of being “in favor of a search for truth.” Ms. Webster argues that the trial court committed legal error in granting Hartford's Motion for New Trial on this basis, while making no findings relative to La. C.C.P. art. 1972 or 1973. A legal error occurs when a trial court applies incorrect principles of law and such errors are prejudicial. Succession of Theobald, 20-68 (La. App. 5 Cir. 12/23/20), 309 So.3d 878, 883. Legal errors are prejudicial when they materially affect the outcome and deprive a party of substantial rights. Id. Based upon our review of the record, we agree that the trial court may have legally erred in failing to properly articulate a basis under La. C.C.P. arts. 1972 or 1973 for granting Hartford's Motion for New Trial. However, Ms. Webster has not argued or shown how this error materially affects the outcome of the case or deprives her of a substantial right, and we therefore decline to review this matter de novo. Furthermore, we find that while the trial court's actions in this matter were arguably contrary to the goal of judicial economy, the trial court did not abuse its broad discretion in granting the Motion for New Trial. Accordingly, this writ is denied.
Gretna, Louisiana, this 15th day of November, 2021.
1. Neither party asserts that Section (3) of La. C.C.P. is applicable to this matter.
Response sent, thank you
Docket No: NO. 21-C-610
Decided: November 15, 2021
Court: Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit.
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