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Marlene Flocco v. J.C. Penney Corporation

August 30, 2011

MARLENE FLOCCO
v.
J.C. PENNEY CORPORATION, INC.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Surrick, J.

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff Marlene Flocco's Motion for a New Trial. (ECF No. 42.) For the following reasons, the Motion will be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

On May 5, 2010, John and Marlene Flocco filed a Complaint seeking damages for negligence and loss of consortium. (Compl. ¶¶ 11-41, ECF No. 1.) The Complaint named two Defendants, J.C. Penney Corporation, Inc. and the Macerich Company d/b/a the Deptford Mall. (Id. ¶¶ 1-5.) On May 20, 2010, the parties agreed that Defendant Macerich Company d/b/a the Deptford Mall would be voluntarily dismissed. (ECF No. 7.) After the completion of discovery, a final pretrial conference was held on January 19, 2011. At the conference, counsel for Plaintiffs advised that John Flocco was no longer pursuing his claim for loss of consortium. John Flocco was dismissed from the case on January 26, 2011.

Marlene Flocco's negligence claims arise out of an incident that occurred on June 15, 2008. On that date, Plaintiff was shopping at the J.C. Penney store in the Deptford Mall in Deptford, New Jersey. Plaintiff was riding on a motorized scooter at the time. Plaintiff contends that a red tablecloth on a jewelry display table became entangled in the wheel of her scooter, causing her scooter to tip over, knocking her to the floor. Plaintiff alleges that the injuries she sustained as a result of this incident eventually caused her to need bilateral knee replacement surgery. Defendant denies that it was negligent in any way. Defendant contends that the tablecloth on the display table was not draped on the floor and that Plaintiff was negligent in causing the incident because she continued to drive her scooter forward after she felt something caught in the wheels. Defendant also denies that Plaintiff's knee replacement surgery was the result of the incident at J.C. Penney.

A jury trial was held on January 24 and 25, 2011. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendant J.C. Penney. The jury found that J.C. Penney was not negligent. Plaintiff seeks a new trial pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff argues that the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence, and inconsistent with the court's instructions. Plaintiff also argues that a new trial is necessary to prevent the injustice that arose as a result of the Defendant's failure to identify former J.C. Penney employee Bryan Young as a witness, and the Court's denial of a request for an adverse inference instruction based on this failure.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 permits a court to order a new 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). Rule 59(a) does not specify the bases upon which a court may grant a new trial, but rather leaves the decision to the discretion of the district court. See Blancha v. Raymark Indus., 972 F.2d 507, 512 (3d Cir.1992) ("The decision to grant or deny a new trial is confided almost entirely to the discretion of the district court.") (citing Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 36 (1980)).

The scope of the district court's discretion when adjudicating a Rule 59 motion depends on whether the motion is based on an error of law or on a verdict alleged to be against the weight of the evidence. See Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3d Cir. 1993). When the motion involves an evidentiary ruling or point for charge, the trial court has wide latitude in deciding the motion. Link v. Mercedes-Benz of N. Am., Inc., 788 F.2d 918, 921-22 (3d Cir. 1986); see also Klein, 992 F.2d at 1289-90. The court must determine: (1) whether an error was in fact made; and (2) whether the error was so prejudicial that a refusal to grant a new trial would be inconsistent with substantial justice. Bhaya v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 709 F.Supp. 600, 601 (E.D. Pa. 1989). When the verdict is alleged to be against the weight of the evidence, the district court's discretion to order a new trial is much narrower, Klein, 992 F.2d at 1290, and the "district court [is cautioned] not [to] substitute its 'judgment of the facts and the credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury.'" Fineman v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 980 F.2d 171, 211 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Lind v. Schenley Indus., Inc., 278 F.2d 79, 90 (3d Cir. 1960)). Since a determination that a jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence "effects a denigration of the jury system," a court may grant such a motion "only when the record shows that the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice or where the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks our conscience." Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1352-53 (3d Cir. 1991) (citing EEOC v. Del. Dep't Health, 865 F.2d 1408, 1413 (3d Cir. 1988)). In addition, the type of case involved also factors into the scope of the court's discretion. When the subject matter of the litigation is simple and within a layman's understanding, the district court is given less freedom to scrutinize the jury's verdict than in a case that deals with complex factual determinations. Id. at 1352; see also Lind, 278 F.2d at 90-91.

III. ANALYSIS

Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to a new trial for two reasons. First, Plaintiff contends that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Plaintiff argues that the jury's finding that the Defendant was not negligent was inconsistent with the evidence presented at trial and with the court's instructions. (Pl.'s Mot. ¶¶ 23-25, ECF No. 42.) Specifically, Plaintiff contends that Defendant never denied being negligent and that Defendant did not present any evidence at trial to address negligence, but only presented evidence on the affirmative defenses related to comparative negligence and causation. Plaintiff asserts that the entire trial was about the cause of her injuries and whether her bilateral knee replacement surgery was caused by her fall at J.C. Penney, not whether Defendant was negligent. Second, Plaintiff argues that a new trial is necessary to prevent the injustice that arose from Defendant's failure to identify Bryan Young, a former employee of J.C. Penney, and from the refusal of the court to give an adverse inference instruction based on this missing witness. (Id. at ¶¶ 27, 32, 34.)

A. Weight of the Evidence

Plaintiff's theory of the case was that a tablecloth from a display table reached the floor, creating an unreasonable danger to invitees. Plaintiff also contends that the display tables were arranged in a way that made them dangerous to travel between. (See Pl.'s Mot. 10.) Plaintiff contends that Defendant did not deny that the tablecloth became entangled in Plaintiff's scooter, and that as a result she sustained an injury to her knee. ...


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