Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Typical Post-Trial Madness

Ochoa v. Dorado, No. B240595 (D2d3 July 22, 2014)

This rear-ender auto accident case is a glorious procedural mess. 

Defendant filed a flurry of motions in limine before jury trial commenced. The court reserved one of them—regarding whether the plaintiffs could recover non-economic damages because they didn’t have auto insurance, see Civil Code § 3333.4—for consideration after trial, if necessary. After the jury rendered a plaintiff verdict including non-economic damages, defendants re-raised the uninsured motorist issue in a motion for new trial. They also sought JNOV on various issues related to medical expenses. After taking testimony on whether plaintiffs were insured, the court granted, in part, the new trial motion, denied the JNOV, and, although no judgment was entered, the parties appealed

The problem is, the JNOV and new trial motions were premature, and thus the trial court had no jurisdiction to address them. Code of Civil Procedure § 659 addresses the timing of new trial motions. And § 629 incorporates the same standards for JNOV motions. Section 659(a) generally contemplates the filing of a notice of intention to move for new trial after judgment has been entered. It does, however, permit a party to seek a new trial “after the decision is rendered and before the entry of judgment.” But it is settled that a “notice of intention to move for a new trial is ‘premature’ and void if filed before there has been a ‘trial and decision[,]’” as that term is defined under § 656.  See Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court, 57 Cal. 2d 450, 458–459 (1962). That generally means a verdict for jury trials and, for bench trials, either the entry a statement of decision or the entry of judgment if no statement of decision is requested. Importantly, there is no “trial and decision” until all of the issues in the case have been decided.

Here, the court had specifically reserved consideration of the uninsured motorist issue until after the jury’s verdict. The court of appeal finds that that was effectively a severance of issues under § 1048(a). The case thus did not end upon the jury’s verdict as the court had never entered a statement of decision on the severed issue. Indeed, the fact that the case was not actually over was made particularly evident in that the trial court actually took testimony on whether plaintiffs were insured in connection with defendants’ putative new trial motion. That proceeding was thus not really a new trial motion, but in fact, a bench trial on the merits of the uninsured motorist issue. (It bears mention that  the new trial statue does not foresee live testimony; “it must be made upon affidavits.” § 658.)

Thus, because the JNOV and new trial motions were filed prematurely, they have no effect whatsoever. Further, because no judgment was ever entered, the other issues raised in the appeal can’t be reached. So the court reverses and remands for the trial court to enter judgment, which then can be attacked by post-trial motions and ultimately appealed. The court then helpfully addresses certain substantive legal issues that might come up in timely post-judgment motions on remand.

Reversed and remanded.

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