Court of Appeals Orders New Trial in Automobile Accident Property Damage Case

Generally, courts will rarely disturb the factual determinations and ultimate verdict provided by a jury. However, there do exist certain limited circumstances when the court can overturn a jury’s verdict. Among the grounds that exists for a trial court to overturn a jury verdict and order a new trial are the following:  when the verdict is contrary to the evidence and principles of equity and justice, O.C.G.A. § 5-5-20; when the verdict is strongly against the weight of evidence, O.C.G.A. § 5-5-21; when there is an illegal admission or exclusion of evidence, O.C.G.A. § 5-5-22; when there is newly discovered evidence bearing on the verdict, O.C.G.A. § 5-5-23; and when there exist certain errors in instruction to the jury, O.C.G.A. § 5-5-24. In a recent decision, Morrison v. Kicklighter (PDF-embedded link), the Georgia Court of Appeals examined whether a trial court’s denial of a motion for a new trial was proper in light of the evidence presented at trial and the verdict reached.
The Kicklighter litigation began with a simple accident, which involved the defendant in this action backing his vehicle into a parked truck owned by the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs sued to recover for resulting property damage, including the cost of repairs, the diminished value of the truck, and the cost of a rental vehicle during the repairs. These losses were covered under a defendant’s motor vehicle liability insurance policy with State Farm Mutual, and the plaintiffs brought an independent action against State Farm for failing to make a good faith effort to adjust and settle their pre-trial demand for payment. In the original action, the defendant admitted to liability, so the jury trial was only necessary to settle the property damage costs, which the defendant did not dispute existed but rather argued were lower than the figures proffered by the plaintiffs. However, despite the defendant’s admission to liability, the jury returned a verdict finding no liability in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff made a motion for a new trial pursuant to O.C.G.A. §§ 5-5-20, 5-5-21, which the trial court denied. In response, the plaintiffs brought this appeal, arguing that the denial of the motion for a new trial was in error.

On an appeal for denial of a motion for a new trial on evidentiary grounds, the appeals court determination is limited to whether the verdict is “contrary to law,” meaning “it lacks any evidence by which it could be supported.” Cook v. Huff, 274 Ga. 186, 186 (2001). As noted above, the defendant in this case admitted to negligence and did not dispute that there was damage resulting from his negligence. Instead, the defendant only challenged the amount the plaintiffs claimed in damages, which the defendant maintained was lower than the plaintiffs’ valuation. Accordingly, a jury verdict for no liability runs directly counter to the evidence, for the defendant acknowledged that at least some amount of damage did exist. Thus, the Court of Appeals held that denying the motion for a new trial was in error and reversed. Since a new trial would likely need to be conducted, the Court of Appeals took the opportunity to address several other errors noted by the parties, although many of these errors would not, in isolation, be sufficient for reversing a jury verdict.
Although jury determinations typically do comport with the evidence presented, juries do occasionally get things wrong. When such unexpected scenarios arise, it is often in a litigant’s best interest to have the aid of skilled counsel that can effectively convince the trial court or appeals court of the need for a new trial. The Atlanta motor vehicle negligence attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have many years of experience with Georgia auto accident litigation against negligent drivers and insurance companies at both the trial and appellate level. If you’re considering bringing a possible motor vehicle negligence suit and are interested in knowing more about the options you have, do not hesitate to contact us for a free case consultation.

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