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Lassere v. Carroll

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

March 18, 2015



JOSEPH C. WILKINSON, Jr., Magistrate Judge.

This case arose from the fatal shooting of plaintiff's 60-year-old mother by defendant St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff's deputies following a traffic stop for driving at night without illuminated headlights. During the incident, decedent, Barbara Lassere, showed officers that she had a gun and said she would shoot them if they did not leave her alone.

At trial, defendants moved at the conclusion of plaintiff's evidence for dismissal of all federal civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court indicated during argument that it was inclined to grant the motion. Plaintiff then moved to dismiss those claims voluntarily. The court granted plaintiff's motion and dismissed the federal claims with prejudice by court order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a)(2). On defendants' motion, without objection from plaintiff, the court also dismissed all state law claims against one defendant, but denied defendants' Rule 50 motion as to plaintiff's state law claims against the remaining defendants. Thus, the only claims submitted to the jury were plaintiff's Louisiana state law negligence claims against defendants Deputies Steven Dailey, Jose Rel, Cleven Remondet and Michelle Pierson; and against Sheriff Michael Tregre in his official capacity under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff in the net amount of $250, 000.00, after reducing the gross amount of damages by 50% fault attributable to the decedent herself. The jury assigned 20% fault to defendant Dailey, the shooter; and 10% fault to each of the remaining three defendants, Deputies Pierson, Rel and Remondet.

Defendants have now renewed in writing their Rule 50 motions asserted orally at trial by seeking judgment as a matter of law, notwithstanding the verdict, or, alternatively, a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). Record Doc. No. 66. Essentially, defendants argue that the evidence was insufficient to support either the liability or the damages verdicts.


(A) Standards of Review

Defendants move for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50. Judgment as a matter of law

is appropriate when "a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." There is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis when "the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the Court believes that reasonable men could not arrive at a contrary verdict." We are to review the record as a whole, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party and without making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence. We also "give credence to... that evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses." Finally, there must be more than a mere scintilla of evidence in the record to render the grant of [judgment as a matter of law] inappropriate.

Wallace v. Methodist Hosp. Sys., 271 F.3d 212, 218 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a);[1] Rubinstein v. Admin'rs of Tulane Educ. Fund, 218 F.3d 392, 401 (5th Cir. 2000); Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 151 (2000)) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251 (1986); Krystek v. Univ. of S. Miss., 164 F.3d 251, 255 (5th Cir. 1999)) (additional internal quotations omitted); accord Effinger v. Cambridge Integrated Servs. Grp., 478 F.Appx. 804, 806 (5th Cir. 2011); Manthos v. Jefferson Parish, 353 F.Appx. 914, 919 (5th Cir. 2009).

Defendants alternatively request a new trial under Rule 59(a), essentially on grounds that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's verdict either on liability or the amount of damages, which defendants characterize as "excessive" and a "large damage award" and which they request be lowered via remittitur. Record Doc. No. 66-1 at p. 15.

Under Rule 59(a), "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues... after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). Rule 59 does not specify the permissible grounds for a motion for new trial, but it is clear that "[n]ew trials should not be granted on evidentiary grounds unless, at a minimum, the verdict is against the great weight of the evidence." Dawson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 978 F.2d 205, 208 (5th Cir. 1992); accord Songcharoen v. Plastic & Hand Surgery Assocs., P.L.L.C., 561 F.Appx. 327, 338 (5th Cir. 2014) (citing Carter v. Fenner, 136 F.3d 1000, 1010 (5th Cir. 1998)); Dresser-Rand Co. v. Virtual Automation Inc., 361 F.3d 831, 838-39 (5th Cir. 2004). When considering new trial motions, the court may set aside the verdict even if there is substantial evidence to support it. Moreover, the court "is not required to take that view of the evidence most favorable to the verdict-winner" and "is free to weigh the evidence." Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller, Mary Kay Kane, Richard L. Marcus & Adam N. Steinman, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2806, text accompanying nn. 6-10 (3d ed., on Westlaw at FPP § 2806); accord Whitehead v. Food Max of Miss., Inc., 163 F.3d 265, 270 n.2 (5th Cir. 1998). "The district court abuses its discretion by denying a new trial only when there is an absolute absence of evidence to support the jury's verdict." Seidman v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 923 F.2d 1134, 1140 (5th Cir. 1991) (quotation omitted); accord Jackson v. Stranco, Inc., 514 F.Appx. 528, 530-31 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Whitehead, 163 F.3d at 269).

Both sides agree, based upon Louisiana case law cited in their written submissions, Mathieu v. Imperial Toy Corp., 646 So.2d 318, 325 (La. 1994); Kyle v. City of New Orleans, 352 So.2d 969, 973 (La. 1977), that the court should consider the following factors in evaluating the validity of the verdict in the context of this motion: (1) the known character of the arrestee; (2) the risks and dangers faced by the officers; (3) the nature of the offense involved; (4) the chance of the arrestee's escape if the particular means are not employed; (5) the existence of alternative methods of arrest; (6) the physical size, strength and weaponry of the officers as compared to the arrestee; and (7) the exigency of the moment. Record Doc. Nos. 66-1 at p. 5 and 68 at p. 11.

Evaluating these factors in this case and viewing the evidence as a whole, I find that the jury's verdict, including its negligence findings, comparative fault assessments and damages amount, were supported by the evidence ...

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