Although we generally associate the challenging of a judge’s ruling with part of the appeals process, there are many instances when a litigant may request a judge to reconsider his or her own decision. As one can expect, asking a judge to reverse himself can be a tricky proposition. Indeed, as two unfortunate defendants before a federal judge who sits on the Middle District of Georgia recently saw, contempt can befall those who carelessly ask for reconsideration.
The case, Wallace v. Wiley Sanders Truck Lines, Inc., started with a motor vehicle accident on U.S. Highway 82 East in Cuthbert, Georgia. An employee of one of the defendants in this action was operating a tractor trailer owned by the defendant. The plaintiff was operating a tractor trailer that was directly in front of the defendant’s tractor trailer. The plaintiff stopped his vehicle and turned on his indicator, signaling that he intended to make a right turn onto a private driveway off the highway. As the plaintiff was making his turn, however, the defendant’s tractor trailer collided with the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff suffered injuries as a consequence of the collision, and he brought suit against the defendant and its insurance company for injuries and pain and suffering. Following trial, the jury found that the defendant’s employee had been negligent and awarded $650,000 in compensatory damages. The defendants moved for the district court to order a new trial, arguing that the court had made evidentiary and jury instruction errors that necessitated the new trial. Unsurprisingly, the judge disagreed.
In a sternly worded decision, the judge started by chiding the defendants, whom he states “cannot contemplate the possibility that their defeat was due to the facts and the law not being on their side or, heaven forbid, that the trial advocacy of their opponents on this particular occasion was more effective than their own.” First, the judge rejected the defendants’ argument regarding the exclusion of hearsay statements from the defendant’s driver. The driver of the defendant’s tractor trailer died prior to his deposition and the trial. To overcome the lack of his sworn testimony, the defendants attempted to introduce dash-cam footage from the cruiser of the investigating officer who questioned the driver at the site. However, the judge concluded that he had properly excluded these hearsay statements because they did not fall within any particular exception to the hearsay rule and would have unduly disadvantaged the plaintiff, who could not cross examine or otherwise challenge the testimony.
Although the judge expressed sympathy for the defendant’s position with respect to this first issue, he did not have any for the defendants’ remaining arguments. First, the court declined to address an errant statement made by the plaintiff’s counsel during closing arguments that the defendants considered prejudicial. The defendants did not object at the time the statement was made, and, contrary to the defendants’ protestations otherwise, the burden is generally on them to object rather than on the judge to strike the comment independently. Although a new trial may be required in the absence of an objection if “the interest of substantial justice is at stake,” substantial justice was not undermined by the statement made here. McWhorter v. City of Birmingham, 906 F.2d 674, 677 (11th Cir. 1990) (per curiam). Accordingly, the general rule obligating the defendants to make a contemporaneous objection applied. The court also summarily dismissed the defendants’ other arguments regarding the order of items on the jury verdict form, the explanation provided for why the insurer was a party to the action, and the amount of compensatory damages, which the judge reminded the defendants cannot be overturned simply because they are unwilling to pay the value but instead only if the value “shock[s] the conscience of the court.” Christopher v. Florida, 449 F.3d 1360, 1368 (11th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).
Although convincing a judge to throw out his own ruling is a tricky proposition, it is not impossible. If one can point to viable controlling law that may have been overlooked, a judge may be swayed to alter a conclusion. This task, along with the many others that come along during a standard legal battle, can be made easier with the assistance of competent and experienced counsel. Indeed, if you’ve recently been harmed by another’s possible negligence and are considering taking legal action, you should consider finding experienced counsel to guide you through the process. The Atlanta truck accident attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have many years of experience representing injured Georgia drivers and are prepared to assist you with a possible case. Feel free to contact us for a free case consultation to discuss your issue and the legal options you may have.