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Spellman v. O'Connor

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 5, 2015

HERBERT SPELLMAN
v.
OFFICER BRAD MOMME and OFFICER DAVID O'CONNOR

MEMORANDUM

STEWART DALZELL, District Judge.

On March 18, 2015, the seven-person jury[1] in this civil rights case delivered an inconsistent verdict, finding that neither police officer had seized, searched or detained Herbert Spellman or used unreasonable force against him but nonetheless awarding the plaintiff $20, 000 in punitive damages. After polling the jury as to those negative answers, we granted the defendants' motion to enter judgment in their favor and against the plaintiff.

Spellman now moves for a new trial on two grounds. He asserts that we erred in failing to seek clarification from the jury as to its inconsistent verdict or to provide them with further instruction. He also contends that we erred in failing to instruct the jury that no frisk should be conducted unless a reasonable officer believed the plaintiff was armed and dangerous.

For the reasons detailed below, we find that we should have sought further clarification from the jury before entering the verdict and so we do not consider Spellman's other ground for seeking a new trial because we see no alternative to ordering a new trial.

I. Legal Standard

We may grant a new jury trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a) on any issue for which a new trial has been granted in an action at law in federal court. Our Court of Appeals has explained that a district court may grant a new trial "where a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand." Gagliardo v. Connaught Labs., Inc., 311 F.3d 565, 572 (3d Cir. 2002) (internal citation omitted). In practical terms, courts have interpreted such circumstances to arise, inter alia, when there is a significant error of law to the prejudice of the moving party or the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. See, e.g., Maylie v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 791 F.Supp. 477, 480 (E.D.Pa. 1992) (Pollak, J.)

"The authority to grant a new trial... is confided almost entirely to the exercise of discretion on the part of the trial court." Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 36 (1980). It is well-established that an order granting a new trial is interlocutory and not an appealable final order within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. ยง 1291. See Stradley v. Cortez, 518 F.2d 488, 491 (3d Cir. 1975) and Blancha v. Raymark Indus., 972 F.2d 507, 511-12 (3d Cir. 1992). An order granting a new trial becomes reviewable only following the entry of a final order at the conclusion of the ensuing retrial. If it then appears that the district court erred in granting a new trial, the order granting a new trial is reversed and the original verdict reinstated. Blancha, 972 F.2d at 512.

II. The Contradictory Verdict

A. The Jury Verdict

The parties submitted proposed jury interrogatories before the trial started on March 16, 2015. The charge conference was held on March 17, 2015 after both sides rested. At the charge conference, the parties considered and suggested changes to a simplified jury questionnaire that asked a single four-part question as to each officer.

The first two parts of each question read as follows:

A) Do you find that Officer [ ] seized, searched and detained Herbert Spellman in violation of the Fourth Amendment causing harm to Mr. Spellman?
B) Do you find that Officer [ ] used unreasonable force against Herbert Spellman in violation of the Fourth Amendment causing harm to Mr. Spellman?

The questionnaire provided that if the jurors answered "NO" to questions A and B as to both officers, then the panel should go to question "2" which inquired if either officer "seized, searched and detained Herbert Spellman in violation of the Fourth Amendment"? If the answer was again "NO", the Foreperson was to sign and date the verdict sheet and call our Courtroom Deputy. If the jurors answered YES to either A or B for either officer, they were to proceed to question C, which asked them to determine for that officer "[w]hat amount is fair and reasonable to compensate Herbert Spellman for the damages that [the officer] caused?" The jurors were then asked to consider whether either officer "acted maliciously or wantonly in violating Mr. ...


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