Holzhauer v. Rhoades

Filing 381

ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL by Judge Jon S. Tigar denying 362 Motion for New Trial. (wsn, COURT STAFF) (Filed on 8/7/2017)

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1 2 3 4 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 5 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 6 7 MARY HOLZHAUER, Plaintiff, 8 GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE HIGHWAY & TRANSPORTATION DISTRICT, United States District Court Northern District of California 11 14 15 16 17 Re: ECF No. 162 Defendant. 12 13 ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL v. 9 10 Case No. 13-cv-02862-JST Before the Court is Plaintiff Mary Holzhauer’s Motion for New Trial. The Court will deny the motion. I. BACKGROUND On February 16, 2013, the ferry SAN FRANCISCO, operated by Defendant Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District (“District”), collided with a speedboat on the San Francisco Bay. The collision killed the driver of the speedboat, Harry Holzhauer, and seriously 18 injured his fellow passenger and owner of the boat, David Rhoades. Mr. Holzhauer’s widow, 19 Mary Holzhauer (“Plaintiff”), and David Rhoades filed negligence claims against the District 20 21 22 23 24 following the accident. Mr. Rhoades and Mrs. Holzhauer both made claims for economic and noneconomic damages. ECF No. 1; ECF No. 30. Mrs. Holzhauer’s adult sons, however, made claims only for noneconomic damages. They sought damages for: 25 “1. The loss of Harry Holzhauer’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support. 26 2. The loss of Harry Holzhauer’s training and guidance.” 27 ECF No. 262 at 35. During trial, Plaintiff’s sons, Timothy and Jeffery Holzhauer, testified about 28 their relationship with their father. Timothy Holzhauer testified that his father was an important 1 figure in his professional life: his father helped him build his business, provided career guidance, 2 and helped him get jobs in real estate appraisal and teaching over the years. ECF No. 362-1 at 3. 3 He also testified to having a close personal relationship with his father. He described his father as 4 his “mentor” and said he spoke to him on an almost daily basis. Id. Jeffrey Holzhauer also testified to having a close relationship with his father. He testified 5 6 that he had worked with his father in the past and had plans to continue working with him in the 7 future. Id. Jeffrey Holzhauer described his father as a big moral supporter and a “protector.” Id. 8 at 4. Both sons testified that their father had promised to help pay his grandchildren’s college 9 tuitions. Id. at 3. Mary Holzhauer reiterated that her husband had a close relationship with their sons. Id. at 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 4. She testified that she and her husband regularly traveled with their sons and grandchildren, that 12 they had purchased timeshares to vacation together, and that her husband was the “go-to-guy” for 13 the entire family. Id. Mrs. Holzhauer also shared photographs of Mr. Holzhauer with his sons and 14 grandchildren. Id. At trial, the jury received the same instructions concerning noneconomic damages for both 15 16 Mrs. Holzhauer and her sons. ECF No. 262 at 35. The jury was told that “[n]o fixed standard 17 exists for deciding the amount of noneconomic damages. You must use your judgment to decide a 18 reasonable amount based on the evidence and your common sense.” Id. After deliberating, the 19 jury found Mrs. Holzhauer had proven $1,000,000 in noneconomic damages. 1 ECF No. 355 at 1- 20 2. It found her sons had proven none. Id. Plaintiff now moves for a new trial as to the singular issue of the noneconomic damages 21 22 suffered by Timothy and Jeffrey Holzhauer. ECF No. 162. The District opposes the motion. ECF 23 No. 367. 24 II. “A plaintiff’s path towards a new trial based on inadequate damages is feasible, but 25 26 LEGAL STANDARD formidable.” D’Amato v. Lillie, No. CV-06-0314-EFS, 2008 WL 4735141, at *2 (E.D. Wash. 27 1 28 The jury also found that Mrs. Holzhauer had proven $546,747 in past and future economic damages. ECF No. 261 at 3. 2 1 Oct. 23, 2008) (citing Mekdeci v. Merrell Nat’l Labs., 711 F.2d 1510, 1513 (11th Cir. 1983)). A 2 trial court may grant a new trial on all or some issues if “the verdict is contrary to the clear weight 3 of the evidence . . . or to prevent, in the sound discretion of the trial court, a miscarriage of 4 justice.” Silver Sage Partners, Ltd. v. City of Desert Hot Springs, 251 F.3d 814, 819 (9th Cir. 5 2001) (internal citation omitted). However, “a district court may not grant a new trial simply 6 because it would have arrived at a different verdict.” Id.; see also Tortu v. Las Vegas Metro. 7 Police Dep’t, 556 F.3d 1075, 1084 (9th Cir. 2009) (holding that a “district court cannot substitute 8 its evaluations for those of the jurors”) (internal citation omitted). Rather, to grant a new trial, “the 9 trial court must have a firm conviction that the jury has made a mistake.” Landes Contr. Co. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1372 (9th Cir. 1987). Courts should be cognizant that “in 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 cases involving intangible, non-economic losses” determining damages “is a matter peculiarly 12 within a jury’s ken.” Smith v. Kmart Corp., 177 F.3d 19, 30 (1st Cir. 1999) (internal quotations 13 omitted). 14 III. 15 ANALYSIS Plaintiff contends that the jury’s conclusion that her sons proved no noneconomic loss 16 “was contrary to the clear weight of evidence” and warrants a new trial on the question. ECF No. 17 362-1 at 2. Although Plaintiff concedes the jury instructions were correct and that the jury 18 understood them – as evidenced by the jury’s “reasoned award” of $1,000,000 in noneconomic 19 damages for her – Plaintiff contends her sons’ trial testimony clearly demonstrated they also 20 suffered significant noneconomic loss. Id. at 6. Because the District presented no evidence 21 disputing this testimony, Plaintiff argues “[t]here was simply no way the jury could reasonably 22 find that Tim and Jeff suffered no loss.” ECF No. 374 at 4. 23 The District does not dispute that Plaintiff’s sons had a close relationship with their father, 24 but contends the intangible nature of noneconomic damages means their loss was a “quintessential 25 jury question” that the Court should not second guess. ECF No. 376 at 2. The jury, the District 26 argues, received the correct instructions, which Plaintiff concedes they understood, but Plaintiff 27 simply did not meet its burden “of proving damages by preponderance of the evidence.” Id. 28 Therefore, the District contends, the Court should deny Plaintiff’s motion. Id. 3 1 The Court is not convinced that the jury’s finding was “contrary to the clear weight of the 2 evidence.” See Silver Sage, 251 F.3d at 819. The intangible nature of “love, companionship . . . 3 training and guidance” makes it difficult for any court to reach a “firm conviction” that a jury 4 made a mistake evaluating such questions. See Landes, 833 F.2d at 1372. That is why, when 5 evaluating intangibles such as these, courts recognize the process is a matter “peculiarly within a 6 jury’s ken.” Smith, 177 F.3d at 30. 7 The Court also has no reason to believe there were flaws in the jury’s deliberation process 8 that would warrant a new trial. The parties agree the jury instructions were correct and that the 9 jury understood those instructions. See ECF No. 362-1 at 6; ECF No. 367 at 3. And there is no indication the jury failed to perform a reasoned analysis. The mere existence of a discrepancy 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 between the jury’s award for Mrs. Holzhauer ($1,000,000) and her sons ($0) does not necessarily 12 mean the analysis was unreasonable, and in fact, may signal the opposite. See Bear ex rel. Bloom 13 v. Ford Motor Co., No. CV-05-253-EFS, 2008 WL 2230743, at *9 (E.D. Wash. May 28, 2008) 14 (finding that “[m]ixed verdicts suggest that the jury rationally evaluated the evidence during 15 deliberations”). CONCLUSION 16 17 18 19 20 The Court denies Plaintiff’s motion for a new trial on the issue of noneconomic damages suffered by Timothy and Jeffrey Holzhauer. IT IS SO ORDERED. Dated: August 7, 2017 21 22 23 ______________________________________ JON S. TIGAR United States District Judge 24 25 26 27 28 4

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