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Blumhorst v. Pierce Manufacturing, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 28, 2014

ERVIN E. BLUMHORST, Plaintiff,
v.
PIERCE MANUFACTURING, INC., a Wisconsin corporation, AKRON BRASS COMPANY, a Delaware corporation, and john Does I through X, Defendants. PIERCE MANUFACTURING, INC., a Wisconsin corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff,
v.
WATEROUS COMPANY, a Minnesota corporation, Third-Party Defendant.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER RE: PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW AND FOR A NEW TRIAL (Docket No. 255)

RONALD E. BUSH, Magistrate Judge.

Currently pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and for a New Trial (Docket No. 255). Having carefully considered the record, heard oral argument, and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:

I. BACKGROUND

On September 30, 2008, Plaintiff Ervin E. Blumhorst ("Blumhorst"), a firefighter, was injured by a "wye" valve that apparently broke away from a fire truck. The fire truck was designed and manufactured by Defendant Pierce Manufacturing, Inc. ("Pierce"), while the wye valve itself was manufactured by Defendant Akron Brass ("Akron"). Blumhorst alleged that "the dangerous and defective condition and design of the [f]ire [t]ruck and/or the [w]ye [v]alve" caused him to "suffer[ ] severe and permanent personal injuries, including... sever[e] trauma and pain, an injury to his head, and a left knee multi-ligament injury." Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 7 (Docket No. 1, Att. 3). Specifically, Blumhorst claimed that (1) the fire truck and wye valve were defective, (2) Pierce and Akron failed to adequately warn of the dangerous properties and design of the fire truck and wye valve, and (3) Pierce and Akron failed to equip the fire truck with safety devices or take reasonable safety precautions to prevent foreseeable injuries. See id. at ¶¶ 9(a)-9(d). In turn, Plaintiff originally asserted negligence, breach of warranty, and strict products liability causes of action against both Pierce and Akron. See id. at ¶¶ 8-14.[1], [2]

Eventually, Blumhorst's claims evolved into two separate and distinct legal theories of recovery against Pierce (strict products liability and negligence), with Blumhorst alleging that his injuries were caused by defects in Pierce's fire truck (loosely defined to include the fire truck's pump and other component parts) and/or because Pierce failed to adequately warn of a hazard involved in the foreseeable use of the pump.

Following a seven-day trial, the jury returned a special verdict on February 27, 2013, finding, in relevant part, that (1) Pierce was not strictly liable; (2) Pierce did not negligently design the fire truck; (3) Pierce negligently failed to give adequate warnings related to the fire truck, but (4) nonetheless proved its "Government Contractor" defense regarding Blumhorst's failure to warn claim; and (5) Akron Brass was also negligent. See Special Verdict Form, pp. 1-3 (Docket No. 247). A Judgment on Jury Verdict followed, ordering "that [Blumhorst] take nothing and judgment [be] hereby entered for [Pierce] together with costs as allowed by law." J. on Jury Verdict (Docket No. 248).

Through the at-issue Motion, Blumhorst argues that the jury's verdict is "irreconcilably inconsistent" and that he is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law because (1) "Pierce['s] fire truck was defective as a matter of law because of inadequate warnings of the hazards associated with its operation"; (2) "Pierce was negligent as a matter of law for failing to provide adequate warnings"; (3) "the Government Contractor defense does not immunize Pierce from liability on either the strict liability claim or on the negligence claim"; and (4) "Pierce did not carry its burden to establish that Akron... negligently manufactured the wye valve and that such negligence caused [his] injuries and damages." Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for J. and/or New Trial, p. 15 (Docket No. 255, Att. 1). Alternatively, Blumhorst seeks a new trial for related reasons. See id. ("A new trial should be granted because the special verdict... was against the clear weight of the evidence. The special verdict... is irreconcilably inconsistent under any possible application of the evidence and instructions. Based upon the clear weight of the evidence, the Government Contractor defense does not provide Pierce immunity from its failure to warn of known dangers or if its continuing duty to warn of dangers associated with the use of the Pierce fire truck. The clear weight of the evidence establishes that Pierce did not carry its burden of showing that the Akron Brass wye valve was negligently manufactured.").

II. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standards

1. Rule 50(b): Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law are made pursuant to Rule 50(b), which states:

If the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made under Rule 50(a), the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion. No later than 28 days after the entry of judgment - or if the motion addresses a jury issue not decided by a verdict, no later than 28 days after the jury was discharged - the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59. In ruling on the renewed motion, the court may:
(1) allow judgment on the verdict, if the jury returned a verdict;
(2) order a new trial; or
(3) direct entry of judgment as a matter of law.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b)(1)-(3).

In reviewing a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under FRCP 50(b), courts "may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence, " but "must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party... and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.'" E.E.O.C. v. Go Daddy Software, Inc., 581 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 2009) (internal quotations and citations omitted). "The test applied is whether the evidence permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's verdict." Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted). The court must review the jury's verdict for substantial evidence and uphold it if "evidence adequate to support the jury's conclusion [exists], even if it is also possible to draw a contrary conclusion." Id. at 961, 963 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

A Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law is not a freestanding motion; rather, it is a renewed Rule 50(a) motion. See id. at 961. "[U]nder Rule 50, a party must make a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law before a case is submitted to a jury" and, "[i]f the judge denies or defers ruling on the motion, and the jury then returns a verdict against the moving party, the party may renew its motion under Rule 50(b)." Id. "Because it is a renewed motion, a proper post-verdict Rule 50(b) motion is limited to the grounds asserted in the pre-deliberation Rule 50(a) motion." Id. "Thus, a party cannot properly raise arguments in its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) that it did not raise in its pre-verdict Rule 50(a) motion." Id; see also Tortu v. Las Vegas Metro. Police Dept., 556 F.3d 1075, 1083 (9th Cir. 2009) ("This failure to file a Rule 50(a) motion precludes consideration of a Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law. We hold that the district court should not have considered [the] Rule 50(b) motion because it was procedurally foreclosed by [the] failure to file a Rule 50(a) motion."); Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) Adv. Comm. Notes 1991 ("A post[-]trial motion for judgment can be granted only on grounds advanced in the pre-verdict motion."); Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) Adv. Comm. Notes 2006 ("Because the Rule 50(b) motion is only a renewal of the pre[-]verdict motion, it can be granted only on grounds advanced in the pre[-]verdict motion."). "However, Rule 50(b) may be satisfied by an ambiguous or inartfully made motion under Rule 50(a);" otherwise, "the rule is a harsh one." Go Daddy, 581 F.3d at 961 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

2. Rule 59: Motion for New Trial

Even where the court findings that a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law is not appropriate, it may order a new trial under Rule 59, which states:

The court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues - and to any party - as follows:
(A) after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court; or
(B) after a nonjury trial, for any reason for which a rehearing has heretofore been granted in a suit in equity in federal court.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A) & (B). "Rule 59 does not specify the grounds on which a motion for a new trial may be granted." Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations and citation omitted). "Rather, the court is bound by those grounds that have been historically recognized." Id. "Historically recognized grounds include, but are not limited to, claims that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving." Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted).

The Ninth Circuit has held that a new trial may be granted "only if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice." Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted). In contrast to a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50, in determining whether a verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence under Rule 59, the court "has the duty... to weigh the evidence as [the court] saw it, and to set aside the verdict of the jury, even though supported by substantial evidence, where, in [the court's] conscientious opinion, the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence." Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted); see also Landes Const. Co., Inc. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1371-72 (9th Cir. 1987) ("If, having given full respect to the jury's findings, the judge on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed, it is to be expected that he will grant a new trial Doubts about the correctness of the verdict are not sufficient grounds for a new trial: the trial court must have a firm conviction that the jury has made a mistake.") (internal quotations and citation omitted); U.S. v. 4.0 Acres of Land, 175 F.3d 1133, 1139 ("... a district court may not grant a new trial merely because it would have arrived at a different verdict.").

The determination of "the clear weight of the evidence" is a fact-specific endeavor, and there must only be some "reasonable basis" for the jury's verdict. Id. (citations omitted). "Although the court's ruling on an alternative motion for a new trial involves the exercise of some discretion, a stringent standard applies when the motion is based on insufficiency of the evidence." E.E.O.C. v. Pape Lift, Inc., 115 F.3d 676, 680 (9th Cir. 1997). To wit, "the absolute absence of evidence to support the jury's verdict makes [refusal to grant a new trial] an error in law." Molski, 481 F.3d at 729-30 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

B. Analysis

1. Blumhorst is Not Entitled to a Judgment as a Matter of Law Under Rule 50(b)

Presented orally at the close of Pierce's case-in-chief on February 26, 2013, Blumhorst made a Rule 50(a) motion, arguing:

Okay. Yes, Your Honor. At the close of the evidence, Plaintiff moved for a directed verdict that the City has sovereign immunity for strict liability claims under Vogel Paint, the Ninth Circuit; that the City has discretionary immunity for the failure to enact ...

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