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Daniel L. Gant v. Captain Fisher

January 5, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rambo


Before the court is Plaintiff's "motion for altering or amending a judgment" under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a). Plaintiff claims Defendant altered a video tape that was shown at trial, intimidated witnesses so they would falsely testify or made witnesses unavailable for trial. (Doc. 230.) For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.

I. Background

On October 11, 2011, a jury trial was held in the captioned case. In the underlying case, Plaintiff alleged that he was assaulted by another inmate and that Defendant is liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because he knew that the relationship between Plaintiff and the assailant was contentious and failed to adequately protect Plaintiff. Furthermore, Plaintiff claimed Defendant was in the prison at the time of the fight, watched the fight occur on camera, and took no steps to end the altercation.

Plaintiff represented himself, testified, and called two witnesses on his behalf. Plaintiff identified a third witness in his pre-trial filings, and had the witness (who also happened to be the assailant in the underlying case) transported to the State Correctional Institute- Camp Hill ("SCI- Camp Hill"), but did not call this witness at trial. Prior to trial, the court ordered Defendant to make available a four and one half minute video taken by prison surveillance of the assault. Although Defendant did stipulate that an assault took place, and it was caught on camera, they objected to the production of the video based on security concerns. In a Report and Recommendation dated August 26, 2010, in which Magistrate Judge Mannion was ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the following conclusion was made: "if defendant Fisher watched the entire 4.5 minute stabbing incident on camera as it happened, and did nothing, this may very well establish deliberate indifference." (Doc. 150, Report & Recommendation, Aug. 26, 2010.)*fn1 As such, the only question left to be decided at trial was whether Defendant Fisher watched the fight take place on camera and failed to take adequate steps to stop or prevent it.

Subsequently, after new counsel entered his appearance on behalf of Defendant, a document was produced to both Plaintiff and the court showing that Defendant had left the institution before the assault in question occurred. Therefore, Defendant renewed the objection to the videotape based this time on both security concerns and relevance. Although the court questioned the relevance of the videotape, after viewing the recording in camera it was determined that the security risk to Defendant was minimal, and in the interest of full disclosure and considering Plaintiff's pro se status, the court permitted showing the tape at trial. However, the court agreed that the portions of the video that showed the number of cameras on the cell block in question would be redacted. The video was viewed once by the jury and Plaintiff asked for it to be viewed a second time. However, due to technical glitches the video froze and would not play again at this time. Notably, during deliberations the jury never asked to view the video again.

Defendant responded by testifying that he was not present at the time of the fight and did not know the assailant outside this trial. In addition, an assistant from the prison's human relations department testified that the prison's electronic monitoring system showed that Defendant left the prison shortly after 3 p.m. on the date of the underlying incident, which itself occurred shortly after 5 p.m.

II. Discussion

Plaintiff asks for a new trial based on the following reasons: Plaintiff claims there is a close-up, more accurate video of the assault Defendant has failed to produce; Plaintiff's witness Albert Ford was threatened by Defendant and therefore failed to tell the whole truth at trial; his assailant, Troy Cooper, was threatened that if he testified he would subsequently be prosecuted for attempted murder; potential witness Leroy Reaves was transferred out-of-state so that the court would not be able to find him; and, that all these prejudices should have led the court to appoint counsel for his witnesses. The court finds each of the arguments to be insufficient to grant Plaintiff a new trial.

A motion for a new trial is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. Under this rule, in the case of a jury trial, "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues-and to any party- . . . 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). In the Third Circuit, a new trial is warranted "when the verdict is against the great weight of the evidence or errors at trial produce a result inconsistent with substantial justice." Sandrow v. United States, 832 F. Supp. 918, 918 (E.D. Pa. 1993) (citing Roebuck v. Drexel Univ., 852 F.2d 715, 735-36 (3d Cir. 1988)); see also Bullen v. Chaffinch, 336 F. Supp. 2d 342, 346 (D. Del. 2004) (noting that excessive damages or improper use of peremptory challenges to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race are other grounds for a new trial).

When a motion for a new trial is based on a prejudicial error of law, the court has broad discretion to order a new trial. Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3d Cir. 1993). If, however, a motion for a new trial is premised on a verdict that is allegedly against the weight of the evidence, the court's discretion is more limited. Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3d Cir. 1991). Under these circumstances, a new trial should only be granted when the verdict "cries out to be overturned or shocks the conscience." Id. Nonetheless, in reviewing a motion for a new trial, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the verdict winner. Marino v. Ballestas, 749 F.2d 162, 167 (3d Cir. 1984); see also 12 JAMES WM. MOORE ET AL., MOORE'S FEDERAL PRACTICE § 59.13.

Here, Plaintiff argues that a new trial is warranted because the verdict rendered was "against the great weight of the evidence," Sandrow, supra, or "shocks the conscience," Marino, supra. These arguments fail.

A. Video Tape

Plaintiff claims that the verdict against him would have been different if "Defendant would not have switched the versions of the 'videotape' showing a 'less detailed' and 'altered version.'" (Pl.'s Br. Supp. Mot. for Altering or Amending a J., Doc. 230, at 1.) Plaintiff provides no additional support for his claim that there is alternative video footage of the assault in question, and, in fact, was free to testify to this belief before the jury. Moreover, there is nothing to suggest a more clear or alternative camera view would change the outcome of this trial. Defendant stipulated to the fact that a fight took place. Further, Plaintiff does not allege that Defendant was present for the fight, but only that he watched it on camera and failed to take actions to stop it. Therefore, there is no dispute that Defendant was not in the actual, physical area of the assault, but only that he watched it remotely and was deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's need for assistance.*fn2 As such, the jury was allowed to give the video the weight ...

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