DOCKET NO.: 99-161
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
CITATION: 528 US 440 (2000)
ARGUED: Jan 18, 2000
DECIDED: Feb 22, 2000
Christine A. Hogan – Argued the cause for the respondents
Paul A. Strandness – Argued the cause for the petitioners
Facts of the case
Bonnie Weisgram died of carbon monoxide poisoning during a fire in her home. Chad Weisgram, her son, brought a diversity suit in federal District Court, seeking wrongful death damages, alleging that a defective heater, manufactured by Marley Company and used by Bonnie Weisgram, cause both the fire and her death. At trial, Weisgram introduced the testimony of three supposed experts to prove the alleged heater defect and its causal connection to the fire. Marley’s objection that the testimony was unreliable, and therefore inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, was overruled by the District Court. After Weisgram’s evidence was introduced, Marley again unsuccessfully moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that Weisgram had failed to meet his burden of proof on the issues of defect and causation. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict for Weisgram. Afterwards, Marley, once again, requested judgment as a matter of law. Additionally, Marley requested a new trial. The court denied the motions and entered judgment for Weisgram. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that Marley’s motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted because the testimony of Weisgram’s expert witnesses, the sole evidence supporting the product defect charge, was speculative and not shown to be scientifically sound. The appeals court did not order a new trial.
May an appeals court order judgment as a matter of law after determining that a plaintiff’s expert testimony should have been excluded at trial and that the remaining evidence was insufficient to support the verdict?
Media for Weisgram v. Marley Company
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 22, 2000 in Weisgram v. Marley Company
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinion of Court in No. 99-161, Weisgram versus Marley Company will announced by Justice Ginsburg.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
This case concerns the respective authority of Federal Trial at Appellate Courts to decide whether as a matter of law, judgment should be entered in favor a verdict loser.
The case resulted from a tragic episode.
Bonnie Weisgram died when her home caught fire, her son petitioner Chad Weisgram, won a jury verdict against respondent Marley Company, the manufacturer of an allegedly defective heater installed in Bonnie Wiesgram’s home.
At trial, heater manufacturer Marley repeatedly objected to the testimony of three witnesses presented by Weisgram as experts, identifying the alleged heater defect as the cause of the fire.
Marley urged that the witnesses’ testimony was unreliable and therefore inadmissible under the standard this Court set in Daubert against Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals and follow-up decisions.
The Trial Court overruled Marley’s objection and denied Marley’s request for judgment as a matter of law.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed and directed entry of judgment for Marley.
The Court of Appeals held that the testimony of Weisgram’s witnesses was inadmissible and concluded that the reaming properly admitted evidence was inefficient to support the jury’s verdict for the plaintiff.
We granted review noting that Court of Appeals have disagreed on the question whether it consistent Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 and Appellate Court may direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law, in this circumstance.
We now affirm the Eighth Circuit judgment.
In a 1967 case Neely against Martin K. Eby Construction Company, we explained that if a defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law is erroneously denied by the Trial Court, the Appellate Court has three options: It may order a new trial; or it may remand the case for the Trial Court to decide whether a new trial or entry of judgment is warranted; or finally it may direct entry of judgment as a matter of law for the defendant.
Adhering to Neely’s reasoning we reject Weisgram’s argument that Appellate Courts lack authority to choose the third course, directing entry of judgment as a matter of law, when the proof becomes inadequate upon exercising erroneously admitted testimony.
In this circumstance, no less than when a plaintiff fails to produce sufficient evidence in the first place, an Appellate Court has authority to render the final decision.
In sum, if in a particular case, the Court of Appeals finds that the Trial Court is better positioned to decide a new trial rather than judgment for the defendant should be ordered, the Appellate Court should of course return the case to the Trial Court, for such an assessment.
But if as in the instant case, the Court of Appeals reasonably concludes that further proceedings are unwarranted because the loser on appeal had a full and fair opportunity to present the case including, making arguments for a new trial, the Appellate Court may appropriately instruct the Trial Court to enter their judgment against the jury verdict winner.
The Court’s decision is unanimous.