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Richmond v. Price

December 18, 2006

ROBERT A. RICHMOND, SR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
JAMES S. PRICE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge McLaughlin

MEMORANDUM OPINION

McLAUGHLIN, SEAN J., J.

I. BACKGROUND

On June 9, 1999, Plaintiff Robert A. Richmond filed a Complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting that Defendants, Corrections Officers Wilkes, McElravy, and Bedilion, had violated his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment as guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, Plaintiff asserted that he suffered severe injuries to his hands and arms when the Defendants repeatedly struck them with the food slot door on Plaintiff's prison cell.

The jury trial of this action commenced on March 13, 2006. On March 15, 2006, the trial concluded with a special verdict. The jury answered "no" to three interrogatories asking whether Plaintiff had established "his Eighth Amendment right to be free from excessive force was violated" by each of the three individual defendants. On March 15, 2006, judgment was entered for Defendants on the special verdict.

On March 28, 2006, Plaintiff filed a motion for new trial. In his motion, Plaintiff contends that the verdict at trial was against the weight of the evidence, that the Court erred in various evidentiary ruleings, that the special interrogatories given to the jury contained legal error, that the Court erred in failing to appoint counsel, and that defense counsel's closing argument contained improper remarks that were prejudicial to Plaintiff. On May 1, 2006, Defendants filed a brief in opposition. This matter is ripe for review.

II. STANDARD FOR REVIEW

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) governs a motion for a new trial. According to Rule 59(a), a court may grant a new trial "for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1). "A new trial may be granted where 'the verdict is contrary to the great weight of the evidence.'" Wilson v. Phila. Det. Ctr., 986 F.Supp. 282, 287 (E.D.Pa.1997) (quoting Roebuck v. Drexel Univ., 852 F.2d 715, 735 (3rd Cir.1988)). New trials may also be directed when the "conduct of counsel or the court has tainted the verdict." Kiss v. K-mart Corp., 2001 WL 568974, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 22, 2001) (citation omitted).

Generally, the decision whether or not to grant a new trial "is committed to the sound discretion of the district court." Bonjorno v. Kaiser Aluminum & Chem. Corp., 752 F.2d 802, 812 (3rd Cir.1984). The court's latitude varies, however, depending on the type of error alleged. Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3rd Cir.1993). Its latitude "is broad when the reason for interfering with the jury verdict is a ruling on a matter that initially rested within the discretion of the court," such as evidentiary rulings. Id. The court's discretion is more limited when granting a new trial on the basis that the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence; in such cases a new trial should be awarded "only when the record shows that the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice or when the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks our conscience." Williamson v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3rd Cir.1991). Moussa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Dept. of Public Welfare, 89 F.Supp.2d 639, 648 (W.D. Pa. 2003).

In determining that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, a different standard of review is applied from that which is applied in deciding a motion for judgment as a matter of law.

A judge must "evaluate all significant evidence, deciding in the exercise of his own best judgment whether the jury has so disregarded the clear weight of the credible evidence that a new trial is necessary to prevent injustice." Berndt v. Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Sales, Inc., 789 F.2d 253, 258 (3rd Cir.1986) (citing Zegan v. Central Railroad Company of New Jersey, 266 F.2d 101 (3rd Cir.1959)). However, a court may not substitute its judgment for that of the jury. A new trial "cannot be granted ... merely because the court would have weighed the evidence differently and reached a different conclusion." Markovich v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., 805 F.Supp. 1231, 1235 (E.D. Pa.), aff'd, 977 F.2d 568 (3rd Cir.1992).

In reviewing a challenge to a jury charge or interrogatories, the relevant inquiry is whether the charge taken as a whole accurately instructed the jury on the applicable law. Colegrove v. Cameron Machine Co., 172 F.Supp.2d 611, 634 (W.D. Pa. 2001). "A trial judge is not required to adopt the exact wording of a point for charge submitted by counsel." Posttape Associates v. Eastman Kodak Co., 537 F.2d 751, 757 (3rd Cir.1976); see also James v. Continental Insurance Co., 424 F.2d 1064 (3rd Cir.1970). Where the challenged portion of the charge was not objected to during trial, the challenging party must demonstrate "plain error in the [interrogatories] affecting [their] substantial rights." Fed. R. Civ. P. 51(d). The plain error doctrine is to be used sparingly and is applied only where (1) an error is committed in the jury instructions or interrogatories, (2) the error is plain or fundamental, and (3) the error was highly prejudicial or resulted in manifest injustice. See, e.g., Simmons v. City of Philadelphia, 947 F.2d 1042, 1078 (3rd Cir. 1991).

A new trial may also be ordered when counsel has used improper remarks in a closing argument. Where a party requests a new trial based on an allegation of improper remarks by counsel, the test is "whether the improper assertions have made it 'reasonably probable' that the verdict was influenced by prejudicial statements." Waldorf v. Shuta, 142 F.3d 601, 628 (3rd Cir.1998) (citations and internal quotations omitted). Although different standards may apply depending upon the reasons advanced for the new trial, "[t]he decision to grant or deny a motion for a new trial 'is confided almost entirely to the discretion of the district court.'" Wilson, 986 F. Supp. at 287 (quoting Blancha v. Raymark Indus., 972 F.2d 507, 512 (3rd Cir.1992)).

III. ANALYSIS

A. Weight of the Evidence

The standard for granting a new trial based on the weight of the evidence is extremely stringent so as "to ensure that a district court does not substitute its 'judgment of the facts and the credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury,'" usurping the function of the jury as the finder of facts. Sheridan v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., 100 F.3d 1061, 1076 (3rd Cir. 1996). Thus, where there is a rational basis to support the verdict, a new trial should not be granted. Delli Santi v. CNA Insurance Companies, 88 F.3d 192, 202 (3rd Cir. 1996).

In order to prevail at trial, the Plaintiff had the burden of proving that the Defendants deprived him of his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and that this failure caused Plaintiff to suffer injury. (Tr., Day 2, pp. 109-10). The jury was instructed that, in the "excessive force" context, the central question is "whether the force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." (Id. at 109). Contrary to the jury's verdict, Plaintiff contends that the great weight of the evidence supports a finding that the Defendants applied force maliciously in an attempt to intentionally cause injury to Plaintiff.

At trial, Plaintiff articulated his version of the events of February 28, 1999. Plaintiff testified that, while evening meals were being distributed in his cell block, he requested to speak to an officer. (Tr., Day 2, p. 19). Plaintiff explained that each cell door has a food slot built into it, with a swinging "wicket" door to allow corrections officers to pass meal trays into the cells. Plaintiff testified that, while he was kneeling on the floor in front of his door, resting his arm and hand on the food slot, and waiting to speak to a senior officer, Officer Wilkes ran up to his cell door and, with no provocation, grabbed the wicket and repeatedly slammed it down on Plaintiff's right arm, smashing it in between the wicket and the slot. (Id.). Plaintiff further testified that Officer McElravy and Officer Bedilion joined Officer Wilkes in striking his arm with the food slot door. (Id.) Plaintiff could not recall how long this lasted but, during cross-examination, asserted that the officers slammed the wicket onto his arm 25 to 30 times. (Id. at 48). Plaintiff opined that the officers committed the assault in order to get back at Plaintiff for asking to speak to an officer about the food service. (Id.)

Plaintiff, during his testimony, denied making any "disturbance" or commotion prior to the incident. However, on cross-examination, Defendants introduced into evidence a grievance form written by Plaintiff wherein he described pouring his Kool-Aid onto the floor and dropping his meal tray onto the floor outside his cell while waiting for the officer to come speak with him. (Tr., Day 2, p. 50; Defense Exhibit A, Inmate Grievance). ...


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