Where plaintiff and defendant offered conflicting testimony regarding what caused a car accident, and the jury credited defendant’s testimony and found defendant not at fault, the verdict was affirmed. In Justice v. Hyatt, No. M2019-02105-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 30, 2021), plaintiff was driving his truck with his friend in the passenger seat while looking at investment properties. While passing through a four-way stop in Pulaski, plaintiff’s truck and defendant’s SUV collided.
Plaintiff and defendant offered contradictory testimony regarding what caused the accident. Plaintiff stated that he stopped at the stop sign, looked both ways, and did not see defendant approaching. He said that when he was halfway through the intersection, defendant’s vehicle approached to his right, slowed down, then sped up and hit his truck. Plaintiff stated that after the accident, he went to check on defendant and she “freely admitted liability for the accident,” stating that she was distracted by looking at a nearby house. Plaintiff’s passenger corroborated this testimony.
Defendant, on the other hand, testified that she was “a long-time resident in the area” and “intimately familiar with the intersection.” She stated that she came to a full stop, looked both ways, did not see any traffic nearby, and never saw defendant’s truck before the collision. She stated that when she stopped, she looked at a nearby house, but “denied being distracted when driving.” She testified that the accident happened very quickly, and she insisted that any apology she offered to plaintiff was not an admission of fault but was “because that’s just the type of person I am.”
Both plaintiff and defendant submitted photos that they each alleged showed that the damage to their vehicles supported their version of events. After the close of proof, the jury returned a verdict for defendant, and after plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, the trial court approved the verdict as thirteenth juror. On appeal, the verdict was affirmed.
An appeal of a jury verdict is reviewed using the material evidence standard, meaning that if “the record contains any material evidence to support the jury’s finding,” the verdict will be affirmed. (internal citation omitted). In this case, both drivers presented conflicting evidence regarding fault, and both stated that they “followed the rules of the road that day.” “Reconciling apparently conflicting testimony and evaluating the witnesses’ credibility are, in the first instance, the jury’s responsibilities,” and “[t]he jury [is] free to believe one witness and disbelieve another.” (internal citations omitted).
Based on the record, the Court ruled that there was material evidence to support the jury’s verdict finding the defendant not at fault. The Court explained:
[Defendant] denied being distracted. And she provided a reasonable explanation for her apology. Based on [her] testimony, the jury could reasonably find that she stopped, looked both ways, and only entered the intersection after verifying that the coast was clear. The jury could also have determined that the location of the damage to both vehicles tended to support [defendant’s] account of the accident.
The verdict was therefore affirmed.
As this case shows, when a case comes down to which witness the jury believes, appealing a trial judge approved verdict will be quite difficult. The “any material evidence” standard is a low standard to meet, and credibility issues are usually left to the jury’s discretion.
NOTE: This opinion was published 7.5 months after oral arguments in this case.