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Wagoner v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

November 15, 2017

TAYLOR WAGONER, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN A. ROSS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the following motions: Plaintiffs' Post-Verdict Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on Defendant's Alleged Comparative Fault Defenses or, in the Alternative, a New Trial Limited to Assessing Comparative Fault, if any, to Plaintiff (Doc. No. 91); Plaintiff's Motion for Bill of Costs (Doc. No. 92); Defendant's Motion for New Trial (Doc. No. 93); Defendant's Motion for Judgment (Doc. No. 95); and Defendant's Motion to Amend Judgment (Doc. No. 97). The motions are fully briefed and ready for disposition.[1]

         I. Background

         This action was tried to a jury beginning on September 25, 2017 through September 28, 2017. On Plaintiff Taylor Wagoner's claim for personal injury, the jury returned its verdict assessing 34% fault to Defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and 66% fault to Plaintiff Taylor Wagoner, and the Court entered judgment accordingly. On Plaintiff Taylor Wagoner's claim for interest, penalties and attorney's fees against Defendant, the jury returned its verdict in favor of Plaintiff Taylor Wagoner and assessed her damages as follows: for interest, $7, 100.00; for penalty, none; and for attorney fees, $15, 312.00. The Court entered judgment accordingly.

         In support of her motion, Plaintiff argues Defendant failed as a matter of law to present legally sufficient evidence in support of its comparative fault defenses. Defendant argues it is entitled to a new trial based on instructional error, evidentiary error, and the weight of the evidence. Defendant also moves for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of vexatious refusal penalties as there was no substantial evidence to support an award of penalties or attorney's fees under the vexatious refusal statute. Lastly, Defendant moves to amend the judgment to disallow attorney's fees on the grounds that proof of a contingency fee agreement, without evidence of the hours worked, billable rate and services provided, failed to provide a basis for the award of attorney's fees.

         II. Discussion

         A. Plaintiffs' Post-Verdict Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on Defendant's Alleged Comparative Fault Defenses or, in the Alternative, a New Trial Limited to Assessing Comparative Fault, if any, to Plaintiff

         Plaintiff claims the Court erred in giving Instruction No. 10, which instructed the jury to assess a percentage of fault to Plaintiff if it believed she was negligent by (1) driving at an excessive rate of speed, or (2) failing to keep a careful lookout, or (3) colliding with the rear of Susan Lewis's vehicle. Plaintiff argues there was no evidence of causation, either direct or circumstantial, to support the three comparative fault submissions. She contends the evidence was undisputed that her car was in the left-hand lane at all times prior to the collision and that the vehicle with which she collided (Susan Lewis) was in the right lane until immediately prior to the collision. Plaintiff also asserts there was no dispute that immediately prior to the collision, Ms. Lewis moved f to the left lane to avoid a ladder lying in the right lane. Further, Trooper Paul Long did not see the collision or interview witnesses to the collision.

         A Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law requires this Court to determine “whether the record contains evidence sufficient to support the jury's verdict.” Racicky v. Farmland Indus., Inc., 328 F.3d 389, 393 (8th Cir. 2003). This inquiry requires the court to “examine the sufficiency of the evidence in the light most favorable to the [prevailing party] and view all inferences in [its] favor.” Id. Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only when all of the evidence points one way and is susceptible of no reasonable inference sustaining the nonmoving party's position. Id. The Court has considered Plaintiff's arguments with the foregoing standards in mind.

         The evidence most favorable to the verdict establishes that Plaintiff rear ended Ms. Lewis's vehicle in the right lane at a speed in excess of the speed limit. The jury had evidence from which it could find that the accident occurred in the right lane, not the left lane, and that Ms. Lewis did not swerve in front of Plaintiff. Trooper Long found debris from the accident in the right lane, not the left lane, and a significant gouge mark in the pavement was consistent with the collision occurring in the right lane. Ms. Lewis testified she did not change lanes prior to the collision and eyewitness Kelly Cullen-Pack testified she did not see a vehicle swerve in front of Plaintiff at any time prior to the collision. Both Ms. Lewis and Ms. Cullen-Pack provided time and distance testimony. On cross-examination, Ms. Lewis estimated that she had over five seconds to respond to the ladder on the highway, which meant that when traveling 60 miles per hour, she had more than 450 feet to react. Ms. Cullen-Pack stated there was almost no time between the brake lights of the rear vehicle coming on and the collision between the two vehicles. In addition, Plaintiff's hospital bed statement to Trooper Long indicated she was traveling 15 miles per hour over the speed limit just prior to the collision.

         The Court concludes there was sufficient evidence presented in the case from which a jury could find that Plaintiff's actions were a contributing cause of her damages. See Freeman v. Busch, 349 F.3d 582, 590 (8th Cir. 2003). The giving of Instruction 10 was therefore not erroneous and Plaintiff's motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for new trial will be denied.

         B. Defendant's Motion for New Trial

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1)(A), “[a] new trial is appropriate when the first trial, through a verdict against the weight of the evidence, an excessive damage award, or legal errors at trial, resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” Gray v. Bicknell, 86 F.3d 1472, 1480 (8th Cir. 1996). A miscarriage of justice does not result whenever there are inaccuracies or errors at trial; instead, the party seeking a new trial must demonstrate that there was prejudicial error. Buchholz v. Rockwell Int'l Corp., 120 F.3d 146, 148 (8th Cir. 1997). It is almost entirely within the discretion of the trial court whether to grant a new trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a); Orthoarm, Inc. v. Forestadent USA, Inc., No. 4:06-CV-730-CAS, 2008 WL 4681385, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Oct. 21, 2008) (citing Belk v. City of Eldon, 228 F.3d 872, 878 (8th Cir. 2000)).

         1. Instructional error

         Defendant claims the Court erred in failing to submit Instruction A, which instructed the jury to assess a percentage of fault to Defendant if it believed: “[f]irst, the operator of an unknown vehicle failed to adequately secure a ladder during its transport, and [s]econd, such conduct directly caused or contributed to cause damage to plaintiff.” Defendant contends that without a finding that the ladder was not properly secured to a motor vehicle, the Court improperly allowed the jury to find against Defendant merely from the fact that a ladder was in the road. Likewise, ...


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