Where plaintiff and defendant gave differing versions of a car accident, the photographs of the vehicles could be interpreted to support defendant’s version of events, and the jury appeared to credit defendant by finding plaintiff 60% at fault, the Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict and the trial court’s refusal to grant a new trial.
In Justice v. Gaiter, No. M2019-01299-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 15, 2020), plaintiff and defendant were involved in a car accident on December 23rd in heavy traffic near a mall. Defendant was attempting to pull onto a road separating two parking areas when the cars collided. At a jury trial, plaintiff asserted that he was sitting in traffic when he was essentially t-boned by defendant in the driver’s door, and that defendant’s car then slid down the remainder of the driver’s side of plaintiff’s car. Defendant, on the other hand, testified that a car had stopped to let him cross into traffic, that he stuck his fender slightly into the lane he was attempting to merge into, and that he was sitting still when plaintiff’s vehicle failed to stop and hit the corner of defendant’s car. The photographs offered into evidence showed “the scraping on Plaintiff’s car from the driver’s side door to the rear fender” and damage to the front of defendant’s car.
The jury returned a verdict finding plaintiff 60% at fault and defendant 40% at fault and awarding no damages. Plaintiff filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and/or for new trial, which the trial court denied. This appeal followed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
“Allocation of fault is a factual determination for the jury,” and it will only be set aside on appeal when there is “no material evidence to support the verdict.” (internal citation omitted). Based on the record, the Court ruled that there was material evidence to support the jury’s finding that plaintiff was 60% at fault here. The Court explained:
Taking the strongest view of the evidence in support of the verdict and affording reasonable inferences to sustain it, the photographs showing the scraping of Plaintiff’s car….support an inference that Plaintiff was in motion when the vehicles collided, supporting Defendant’s testimony. Without reweighing the evidence or the credibility of the testimony, we conclude that Defendant’s testimony constitutes material evidence to support the finding of comparative fault.
The Court likewise affirmed the trial court’s refusal to grant a new trial, noting that the trial court is not required to give an explanation, but that here the judge specifically found that the jury credited defendant’s testimony and that such a decision was within the province of the jury and not contrary to the weight of the evidence.
Credibility determinations by juries resolve questions of fact. As this case shows, getting a jury verdict that hinges on credibility reversed on appeal is rare.
NOTE: this opinion was release about 18 weeks after oral argument.