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Hogan Logistics, Inc. v. Davis Transfer Co, Inc.

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

July 19, 2018

HOGAN LOGISTICS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
DAVIS TRANSFER COMPANY, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CHARLES A. SHAW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This closed diversity case is before the Court on defendant Davis Transfer Company, Inc.'s (“defendant” or “Davis”) Motion to Set Aside Verdict and Grant New Trial pursuant to Rule 59(a)(1)(A), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff Hogan Logistics, Inc. (“plaintiff” or “Hogan”) opposes the motion and it is fully briefed. For the following reasons, defendant's motion will be denied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Hogan originally filed suit against Davis in state court, asserting a claim for breach of contract arising from a 2013 Broker-Carrier Agreement (the “Agreement”) entered into by the parties. Davis removed the case to this Court based on diversity of citizenship jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). The Court denied Davis's motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding in pertinent part that the disputed term “traffic” as contained in the Agreement's Traffic Solicitation Clause was ambiguous as a matter of law, as each party offered plausible interpretations of its meaning. Mem. and Order of Apr. 27, 2017 (Doc. 32 at 6) (J. Jackson). Hogan filed an Amended Complaint that added claims for breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing and tortious interference (Doc. 39), but later dismissed those claims leaving only the breach of contract claim in Count I (Doc. 75).

         The Court denied defendant Davis's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the disputed Traffic Solicitation Clause was ambiguous, and therefore under Missouri law the parties' intent as to the meaning of the contract was a genuine issue of fact to be determined at trial. Mem. and Order of January 9, 2018 (Doc. 89 at 12-14).

         Hogan's breach of contract claim was tried before a jury on February 26, 2018 through February 28, 2018. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff Hogan. Defendant Davis timely filed its motion for new trial, asserting that (1) the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence, and (2) the Court erred by refusing to give Davis's proposed jury instruction No. 34 on its estoppel defense.

         II. Legal Standard

         “‘[T]he granting or denial of a new trial is a matter of procedure governed by federal law.' Bank of Am., N.A. v. J.B. Hanna, LLC, 766 F.3d 841, 851 (8th Cir. 2014) (alteration in original) (quoting Brown v. Royalty, 535 F.2d 1024, 1027 (8th Cir. 1976)).” Lincoln Composites, Inc. v. Firetrace USA, LLC, 825 F.3d 453, 459 (8th Cir. 2016). It is almost entirely within the discretion of the trial court whether to grant a new trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a); Belk v. City of Eldon, 228 F.3d 872, 878 (8th Cir. 2000).

         “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). The key question is whether a new trial is required in order to avoid a miscarriage of justice. Fletcher v. Tomlinson, 2018 WL 3407069, at *6 F.3d (8th Cir. July 13, 2018) (quoted case omitted). “[A] new trial is only an appropriate remedy when an aggrieved party proves prejudice, meaning that the result at trial would have been different if not for the district court's error.” Acuity v. Johnson, 776 F.3d 588, 596 (8th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted).

         III. Discussion

         A. The Verdict Was Not Against the Weight of the Evidence

         The jury in this case was instructed to determine the parties' intent with respect to the meaning of the ambiguous Traffic Solicitation Clause and, in particular, the meaning of the term “traffic” in the parties' Agreement. Defendant Davis argues that while it submitted evidence, including Hogan's email and industry expert testimony, to support its interpretation of the disputed term “traffic, ” plaintiff Hogan offered no objective evidence of industry custom and usage to support its interpretation of the term, and presented only the subjective interpretation of its non-retained expert, Benjamin Strickler. Davis argues that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence because Mr. Strickler's testimony was conjectural and self serving, and had no connection to actual trade custom and usage.

         “[T]he granting or denial of a new trial is a matter of procedure governed by federal law.” Bank of Am., N.A. v. J.B. Hanna, LLC, 766 F.3d 841, 851 (8th Cir. 2014) (alteration in original) (quoted case omitted). “A district court abuses its discretion in denying a motion for new trial based on sufficiency of the evidence ‘if the verdict is against the weight of the evidence and allowing it to stand would result in a miscarriage of justice.'” Lincoln Composites, 825 F.3d at 459 (quoted case omitted). In determining whether a verdict is against the weight of the evidence, a court “can rely on its own reading of the evidence-it can ‘weigh the evidence, disbelieve witnesses, and grant a new trial even where there is substantial evidence to sustain the verdict.'” White v. Pence, 961 F.2d 776, 780 (8th Cir. 1992) (quoted case omitted). Nonetheless, in making such a determination, a court “may not usurp the role of the jury by granting a new trial simply because it believes other inferences and conclusions are more reasonable.” Manus v. American Airlines, Inc., 314 F.3d 968, 973 (8th Cir. 2003) (quoted case omitted).

         In a diversity action such as this, “whether the jury's verdict was against the great weight of the evidence is judged in accordance with substantive state law.” Bank of Am., 766 F.3d at 851. Here, the Court applies the substantive law of the forum state, Missouri. See Lincoln Composites, 825 F.3d at 459. To establish its breach of contract claim, Hogan was required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence the following essential elements: “(1) the existence and terms of a contract; (2) that plaintiff performed or tendered performance pursuant to the contract; (3) breach ...


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