Evidence must be “overwhelming” to set aside jury decision

A court can only set aside a jury verdict in favour of a plaintiff when the evidence “overwhelmingly” supports the plaintiff’s claim, the US sixth circuit court of appeals said in relation to a recent marine case, reports Senior Claims Executive Julia Moore in the UK P&I Club summer edition of Bodily Injury News (the journal of the Thomas Miller Americas’ bodily injury team). Moored noted that the Ghaleb decision arose out of suit for bodily injuries allegedly sustained by Abdulmonke Ghaleb while

working aboard a tug and barge owned by American Steamship Company (ASC). The incident occurred while the tug and barge were being separated for winter lay-up and the barge was being connected to a shore-side power source using a large, heavy electric cable. The cable needed to be lowered from the barge to an electrician on the dock and the manoeuvre required four crewmen, including Ghaleb, working under the direction of the Chief Engineer.

At some point, Ghaleb was directed to tie a heaving line to one end of the cable in order that the heaving line could be tossed to the electrician on the dock. While Ghaleb was doing this, one of the crewmen slipped on ice on the deck and dropped the power cable, causing a second crewman to drop the cable, which then slid along the deck into Ghaleb’s heels and knocked him down. Ghaleb allegedly sustained personal injuries as a result and he subsequently filed suit against ASC, claiming Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness and negligence per se, based on ASC’s violation of a workhours statute regulating the vessel.

At trial, Ghaleb presented testimony and business record evidence that he and the other crew involved in power cable manoeuvre had exceeded the statute’s work-hours limits. However, neither the crewmember who dropped the cable, nor the Chief Engineer, testified that fatigue was a factor in the incident and, despite having the burden of proof, Ghaleb presented no evidence on fatigue other than the fact that the crew had violated the statute. This would turn out to be an important factor in the considerations of the higher courts.

The jury returned a unanimous verdict in favour of ASC.

Ghaleb filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law on every claim seeking to set aside the jury’s verdict. The district court denied the motion with respect to the claims of negligence and unseaworthiness, but granted the motion on the negligence per se claim, overruling the jury’s verdict and finding that there was no explanation for the incident other than fatigue, which the district court presumed to exist by virtue of the statutory violation and despite the fact that Ghaleb presented no evidence that fatigue caused the incident. Moore observed that “in essence, the district court substituted its judgment for that of the jury and created its own theory of recovery for Ghaleb.

ASC appealed and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court decision and reinstated the jury verdict in ASC’s favour.

The Appeal Court started with the settled proposition that a court can only set aside a jury verdict in favour of a plaintiff when the evidence “overwhelmingly” supported the plaintiff’s claim. It conducted a meticulous review of the evidence in order to determine whether Ghaleb had proved that his accident was caused by fatigue and that no reasonable jury could have concluded otherwise. The appeals court then determined that Ghaleb had not presented adequate evidence that fatigue alone was the legal cause of the incident. Therefore, since a reasonable jury could have found that the incident was a faultless accident, or would have occurred without regard to fatigue, it was error for the district court to substitute its judgment for that of the jury, even if the district court’s theory was “plausible” and even if a different jury might have found for Ghaleb.

The Appeal Court acknowledged that fatigue, hypothetically, might affect a crewmember’s performance and could contribute to almost any mishap, but said that the trial court did not have the authority to set aside a jury’s verdict in the absence of any evidence that crew fatigue actually contributed to the incident.

Moore noted that the appellate court’s decision was not unanimous and the dissenting judge vigorously argued that the direct and inferential evidence supported

Ghaleb’s position that the hours worked were extreme, the cable was heavy and, therefore, fatigue had to play a role in causing the incident.

The dissent argued that the “minimal” evidence of causation allowed under the Jones Act compelled a conclusion that plaintiff had proved his negligence per se claim.

Using the same evidence relied upon by the majority, the dissent posited that no reasonable jury could have found that the incident would not have occurred in the absence of fatigue. Although it was not enough to sway the final decision, the dissenting judge’s analysis prompted the majority to remark that Ghaleb “had a decent case” and might have won with a different jury hearing the same evidence. https://www.ukpandi.com/fileadmin/uploads/uk-pi/Documents/2017/Brochures/US_BI_News_June_17_WEB.pdf