Legal News and Appellate Tips

Each week, TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal reviews several recent decisions out of the appellate courts in California, and elsewhere, and reports about the ones that might help you get an edge in your cases and appeals.

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Tag: Trial Irregularities and Structural Errors

Excluding Expert's Rebuttal Opinion Can Be Grounds to Reverse Jury Verdict

In one of the many lawsuits by hip-replacement patients against Zimmer, Inc., the maker of the Durom Cup, a court of appeal recently held the trial court committed structural error when it improperly excluded Zimmer’s expert to rebut the plaintiff’s expert. See Kline v. Zimmer, Inc. (May 26, 2022, B302544) __Cal.App.5th__, 2022 Cal.App.Lexis 460. This is surprising because, normally, trial court rulings on evidence are reviewed for abuse of discretion, and errors are only reversed if the appellant shows they affected the result. But the exclusion of a rebuttal expert here resulted in automatic reversal.

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Is the Right to In-Person Trials Enforceable?

Defendants are entitled to an in-person trial in criminal cases. The California Constitution says so. But the Court of Appeal now holds that, even if you are denied that right, […]

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Exclusion of Expert Opinion Held Structural Error on Appeal Requiring Automatic Reversal

In one of the many lawsuits by hip-replacement patients against the maker of the Durom Cup, Kline v. Zimmer, Inc. (D2d8 may 26, 2022) ___ Cal.Rptr.3d ___ 2022 WL 1679539 held the trial court committed structural error when it improperly excluded Zimmer’s expert to rebut the plaintiff’s expert. This is surprising because, normally, trial court rulings on evidence are reviewed for abuse of discretion, and errors are only reversed if the appellant shows they affected the result. But the exclusion of a rebuttal expert here resulted in automatic reversal.

Basically, the plaintiff offered an expert to opine that the Durom Cup was the cause of the pain and suffering. Zimmer’s expert was going to opine about other possible causes, even if they were less than 51% likely to be the cause. The trial court excluded it because medical expert opinion has to be 51% likely.

The Court of Appeal reversed. A defendant’s expert doesn’t have to prove 51% likelihood. The 51% threshold is the plaintiff’s burden of proof, not the defendant’s.

And where the excluded rebuttal opinion was the only rebuttal opinion, the exclusion leads to a “one-sided presentation of evidence.” This was a structural error, requiring automatic reversal.

The Upshot: This is the second reversal after a trial, which means the parties will have to try this case a third time. The trial judge, the Hon. Daniel J. Buckley, is a former personal-injury defense attorney. This suggests that, despite the care and experience devoted to this trial, trial procedure governing experts is both extraordinarily important and extraordinarily variable. To the extent expert issues can be crystallized in motions in limine, trial counsel should consider taking up a writ petition.

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There’s Actually a Big Difference Between Motions for Nonsuit and Judgment: A Rebuttal to Prof. Martin

The trial court may not deem the right to a jury trial waived simply because the plaintiff failed to comply with local rules, like failing to submit trial binders.

That is the important point about waiver of the right to a jury trial in Amato v. Downs (D4d2 May 6, 2022 No. E075421) -- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, 2022 WL 1438723.

But I disagree with Prof. Martin about whether this structural error should result in automatic reversal. Prof. Martin thinks it should not, because the trial court granted a judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 63.8 after the plaintiff rested his case in chief. Prof. Martin takes this to mean that sending the matter back for a jury trial would just waste everyone’s time.

I suggest that Prof. Martin has overlooked that a trial judge making a judgment under section 631.8 is sitting as a trier of fact. It is not a judgment as a matter of law like a nonsuit or JNOV.

So Prof. Martin and I agree that the Court of Appeal here got it right. But the fact that the plaintiff could not persuade the judge does not mean it would be futile to afford him his constitutional right to try to persuade a jury.

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Employee Challenging Defense Verdict on Appeal Could Not Overcome the Difficult "Finding Compelled as a Matter of Law" Standard of Review

Another recent case instructs plaintiffs not to think they can reverse a defense judgment by arguing that "substantial evidence" supported a verdict in the plaintiff's favor. Instead, to overcome a defense verdict, a plaintiff must establish on appeal that the evidence was so overwhelming and uncontroverted that findings for the plaintiff were "compelled as a matter of law." Plaintiffs can almost never meet this burden, and the plaintiff in *Snoeck v. ExakTime Innovations, Inc.* (D2d3 Nov. 29, 2021) 2021 WL 5563958 (no. B302178) (nonpub. opn.) could not meet it, either.

Also of note: The plaintiff did prevail on one claim, but did not beat the employer's 998 offer. But when the employer moved to tax costs, it did not attach the 998 offer to the moving papers. It attached it instead to the reply papers. Held: it was an abuse of discretion to consider the 998 offer if not attached to the motion itself.

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