Grunenthal v. Long Island Railroad Company

PETITIONER: Grunenthal
RESPONDENT: Long Island Railroad Company
LOCATION: Stanley's Home

DOCKET NO.: 35
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 393 US 156 (1968)
ARGUED: Oct 24, 1968
DECIDED: Nov 18, 1968

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Grunenthal v. Long Island Railroad Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 24, 1968 in Grunenthal v. Long Island Railroad Company

Earl Warren:

Number 35, Carl F. Grunenthal, petitioner v. the Long Island Railroad Company, et al.

Mr. Meyer.

Milford J. Meyer:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This case presents a constitutional challenge to the power of the Courts of Appeals to review the denial by the districts courts of motions for new trial on the ground that verdicts are excessive.

This was an action in the District Court for the Southern District of New York under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.

It was tried in two parts.

In the first trial, the jury found the liability of the Railroad to its employee.

A separate trial then was held in which the amount of the damages was fixed by the jury.

Judgment was entered upon the total verdict and on the railroad's motions for new trial the district judge dismissed all of its objections on the record as to matters of evidence and as to the specific argument that the verdict was excessive.

The trial judge carefully reviewed all of the evidence that had been produced none of which was controverted and found that an opinion which appears in the appendix that the verdict was fully justified by the evidence.

On appeal to the Second Circuit, two judges of that Court found as did the third that there was no merit in the Railroad’s other arguments on error in the trial but reached the conclusion that the verdict was grossly excessive and directed a new trial unless a remittitur be filed.

The third judge who sat on the case disagreed.

He found that the verdict was sustained by the evidence and the Court should not have disturbed it.

We go directly to the constitutional question of whether the Court of Appeals had the power to make this order.

The Seventh Amendment was passed upon as early as 1830 by Chief Justice Marshall’s Court in an opinion by Justice Story in Parsons v. Bedford in which this Court specifically denied to itself the power to review questions of fact which had been passed upon and approved by the Trial Courts.

And that was the law until 1879 when the specific question here involved was first raised in Railroad against Fraloff when this Court in an opinion by Justice Harlan specifically held that it had no power to review the excessiveness of a verdict found to be proper by the District Court.

When the circuit courts, now the Courts of Appeals were created certainly they obtain no greater power of review than this Court when it itself was passing upon appeals from the District Courts.

And the history of the circuits in the early days was early acceptance of this rule which had been promulgated by this Court that there was no power under the Seventh Amendment to interfere on the basis of the excessiveness of a verdict.

That early acceptance gradually in the circuits one after another passed to arguments which constituted a rationalization of reasons why they should have some power of interference.

And finally in the last 20 years specifically beginning about 1948 each of the Courts of Appeals has made the statement that it has the adherent power to interfere and overrule on the basis of excessiveness alone.

Now, the Courts of Appeals have made three approaches to the statement of this power which they have that the Supreme Court did not have when it was hearing appeals itself.

First, some of the Courts of Appeals have said that the common law history which was looked to by the Seventh Amendment does not support the position that the early judges of this Court took on these questions.

That as a matter of fact when we look to the history of the common law procedure before 1791 when the amendment was adopted that the British Courts did in fact review in sort of an appellant procedure the qualm of a verdict as well as the weight of evidence.

This I think is completely erroneous and has no basis whatsoever.

It is based entirely on the fact that the English Court of Queen’s Bench decided en banc motions for a new trial which may have been tried before one of their judges at the assizes.

But Justice Story in the Parsons against Bedford case realized that as well as did all of the early judges of this Court when he said that there could be no review of questions of fact except in the Court in which the case was tried or to which it was returned.

Certainly, recognizing the fact that Queen’s Bench sat as a court en banc, and so any rationalization that the Court of Appeals today is like Westminster sitting in Queen’s Bench en banc because some of the history books tells us sometimes the trial judge did not sit in the court en banc certainly has no basis historically.

The fact is and the writers have said and we have studied everyone of the cases which have been referred to by any of the Courts of Appeals there is no case reported prior to 1791 in the English books in which a new trial was granted except for error of law in which the trial judge did not sit at Westminster upon the hearing of the motion.

Now, a second tact that has been taken and was taken by the Second Circuit in the early cases upon which our court relied was that true it is and this Court has held that a review of the quantum of the evidence may not ordinarily be made by an Appellant Court under the Seventh Amendment because this is the review of a question of fact and that this Court has said time and time again.

But said the Second Circuit and others following it, there must be an upper limit that is a verdict maybe somewhat excessive we cannot interfere but it may reach an upper limit at which the question then becomes one of law and not one of fact.