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Saetrum v. ADA County Sheriff Gary Raney

United States District Court, D. Idaho

October 11, 2017

ADAM TODD SAETRUM, Plaintiff,
v.
ADA COUNTY SHERIFF GARY RANEY, in his individual capacity, DEPUTY ADA COUNTY SHERIFF JAKE VOGT, in his individual capacity, DEPUTY ADA COUNTY SHERIFF TYLER STENGER, in his individual capacity, ADA COUNTY DETECTIVE KEVIN LOUWSMA, in his individual capacity, and DEPUTY ADA COUNTY SHERIFF STEVE ROBINSON, in his individual capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

          WILLIAM B. SHUBB UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This excessive force case concerns plaintiff Adam Todd Saetrum's claims against defendant Deputy Ada County Sheriff Jake Vogt based on defendant's alleged striking of plaintiff with his patrol car during an arrest. After a six-day trial, a jury found that defendant did not strike plaintiff with his patrol car, and the court entered judgment for defendant.[1] Plaintiff now moves for a new trial. (Docket No. 236.)

         I. Legal Standard

         Pursuant to Rule 59, a “court may, on motion, grant a new trial . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). “[E]ven if substantial evidence supports the jury's verdict, a trial court may grant a new trial if ‘the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, or is based upon evidence which is false, or to prevent, in the sound discretion of the trial court, a miscarriage of justice.'” Silver Sage Partners, Ltd. v. City of Desert Hot Springs, 251 F.3d 814, 819 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting United States v. 4.0 Acres of Land, 175 F.3d 1133, 1139 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         However, in ruling on a motion for new trial a court “must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 61. An error generally does not affect a party's substantial rights where it is clear that a purported error did not affect the outcome of trial. See, e.g., Conway v. Chem. Leaman Tank Lines, Inc., 525 F.2d 927, 929-30 (5th Cir. 1976).

         II. Discussion

         Defendant complains of various rulings the court made at and before trial on the admissibility of evidence. First, for the reasons the court made clear at the time of its rulings, the court is satisfied that those rulings were correct. Second, the court is equally satisfied that even if the case were to be retried with all of the excluded evidence allowed, it is highly unlikely that the outcome on retrial would be any different. For those reasons, the motion will be denied.

         After this court denied defendant's motion for summary judgment, defendant took an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit, and in a memorandum disposition, the Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, effectively splitting plaintiff's cause of action into two parts, which they termed the “patrol car claim” and the “take-down claim.” Saetrum v. Vogt, 673 Fed.Appx. 688 (9th Cir. 2016). The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion for summary judgment on the patrol car claim, thus allowing the case to proceed to trial on the issue of whether defendant intentionally drove his patrol car into plaintiff. But the court reversed the denial of summary judgment on the take-down claim on the grounds of qualified immunity.[2]

         The Ninth Circuit's decision thus placed this court in the difficult position of assuring that the jury did not award damages for any injuries sustained as a result of the take-down. Plaintiff claimed, and defendant disputed, that he suffered a concussion. Plaintiff never claimed that it was a result of being struck by the patrol car, but always claimed it was a result of the take-down. The court determined prior to trial that the only way to effectively implement the Ninth Circuit's decision was to exclude evidence of the take-down and the alleged concussion altogether. The court continues to believe strongly that its ruling was correct and consistent with Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.

         If plaintiff had been permitted to talk about his alleged concussion and call other witnesses to express their opinions about it, defendant would have been permitted to present its evidence that plaintiff never manifested any signs or symptoms of a concussion. That would have unnecessarily consumed time and diverted attention from the real issues in the case. Worse, it would have made the jury wonder how plaintiff got the concussion, and thus opened the door to evidence of the takedown.

         Most importantly, allowing evidence of the concussion would have made no difference in the verdict. The jury specifically found that defendant did not strike plaintiff with his patrol car. The court cannot conceive of how the question of whether plaintiff later sustained a concussion or not could have affected that finding. See, e.g., Estate of Barabin v. AstenJohnson, Inc., 740 F.3d 457, 466 (9th Cir. 2014) (erroneous admission or exclusion of evidence is reviewed for harmless error “by asking if . . . the evidence affected the outcome of trial”) (citations omitted); Richins v. Deere & Co., 231 F.R.D. 623, 626 (D.N.M. 2004) (exclusion of evidence did not warrant new trial because movants had not shown that exclusion of the evidence was prejudicial or that admitting the evidence would have led to a different result).

         Plaintiff also complains that the court excluded evidence of an alleged abdominal injury. He notes that he alleged an abdominal injury as a result of being struck by the patrol car in his Fourth Amended Complaint (see Docket No. 115 at ¶¶ XXVI, LIV-LV, LXII), and that he never formally withdrew this allegation. However, plaintiff did not discuss an abdominal injury in his Ninth Circuit briefs, and more importantly, plaintiff's counsel expressly agreed with the Ninth Circuit panel at oral argument that if qualified immunity applied to plaintiff's head injury, the only remaining issue would be his patrol car claim and the possible knee injury.

         Counsel did not simply misspeak at the Ninth Circuit. Plaintiff's counsel represented to this court during multiple status conferences after the appeal that the only injury at issue was plaintiff's knee injury, and plaintiff's Supplemental Pretrial Statement Re: Damages (Docket No. 170) made no mention of an abdominal injury, referring only to his knee injury. Based on these representations, both the court and defendant prepared for a trial where no other injuries were at issue. Under all these circumstances, plaintiff waived his claim of an abdominal injury as a result of being struck by defendant's patrol car. Moreover, because the jury found no liability, any error in excluding evidence of injuries was harmless.

         Plaintiff also complains that he was not allowed to cross examine Scott Haug, an expert witness called by defendant. That witness was withdrawn before he gave any relevant testimony, and plaintiff's counsel waived cross examination. If plaintiff's counsel had told the court he wanted to ask Haug any questions, the court might have allowed it. However, anything he could have asked Haug could not have ...


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