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In re Rains

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

June 25, 2018

In Re Wilson Henry Rains, natural father and heir of Tori Rains-Wedan, deceased; and Bjorn John Wedan, natural father and heir of Austin Wedan, Hunter Wedan, and Mason Wedan, deceased, Plaintiffs,
v.
Douglas H. Barber, personal representative of the Estate of Oliver Ezard Frascona; the Estate of Oliver Ezard Frascona, a/k/a Oliver E. Frascona, a/k/a Oliver Frascona; the Real Estate School, a Colorado LLC; and Joseph B. Lechtanski. Defendants.

          Original Proceeding Pursuant to C.A.R. 21 Weld County District Court Case No. 15CV30227 Honorable Todd L. Taylor, Judge

          Attorneys for Plaintiffs: Katzman Lampert, PLLC Bruce A. Lampert Broomfield, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendants Douglas H. Barber, the Estate of Oliver Ezard Frascona, and the Real Estate School: Godfrey Johnson, P.C. Brett Godfrey Karen J. Porter Englewood, Colorado

          No appearance on behalf of Joseph B. Lechtanski.

          OPINION

          BOATRIGHT JUSTICE

         ¶1 In this original proceeding, we determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in granting the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial after a jury found that the defendants, two pilots, were not negligent during a near collision that resulted in one plane crashing and killing all five passengers on board. To resolve this issue, we address two underlying questions: first, whether the trial court's stated reasons for granting a new trial met the requirements of C.R.C.P. 59(d), and second, if not, whether a trial court may nevertheless grant a new trial for a reason other than those enumerated in Rule 59(d). We answer both questions in the negative and accordingly hold that the trial court abused its discretion in granting a new trial. We therefore make our rule to show cause absolute and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 This case is a civil action brought against Defendants Oliver Frascona, deceased, and Joseph Lechtanski to determine their liability as the two pilots involved in a plane crash that occurred at Erie Municipal Airport. Erie Municipal Airport is uncontrolled, which means it does not have a control tower to monitor inbound and outbound air traffic and ground operations. Instead, pilots themselves must alert other nearby pilots of their departures and arrivals.

         ¶3 On the day of the crash, Frascona was piloting an inbound plane to Runway 33. He had four passengers on board: Tori Rains-Wedan and her three sons. At the same time that Frascona was attempting to land on Runway 33, Lechtanski was attempting to take off from Runway 15. Runway 33 and Runway 15 are two separate ends of the same strip of an asphalt runway. Consequently, Lechtanski was taking off head-on into Frascona's attempted landing. The two planes nearly collided mid-air. To avoid the collision, Lechtanski veered right, and Frascona attempted a "go-around," which is an aborted landing maneuver where a pilot overflies the runway at a safe distance and then turns to join the traffic pattern for another attempted landing. In attempting this maneuver, Frascona's plane stalled and crashed, killing everyone on board. Lechtanski safely recovered after the near collision. The plaintiffs, the heirs of Rains-Wedan and her three sons, brought an action against Frascona's estate and Lechtanski, alleging that one or both of them was responsible for the crash.[1]

         ¶4 At the trial, three expert witnesses testified.[2] During cross-examination of Frascona's expert, Douglas Stimpson, the plaintiffs asked what percentage of fault he would apportion to each of the defendants. Frascona objected, arguing that the question called for a legal conclusion, was outside the scope of Stimpson's expertise, and usurped the role of the jury. The trial court sustained the objection, preventing Stimpson from answering.

         ¶5 After the close of evidence, the trial court gave the jury relevant instructions on the burden of proof; legal definitions of negligence; and, if appropriate, how to apportion fault between the two pilots. The verdict form permitted the jury to find one, both, or neither of the defendants negligent by asking, in separate "yes or no" questions, whether each defendant was negligent. The verdict form then asked the jury to apportion fault between the pilots and to assess damages, but only if it answered "yes" to any of the preceding questions regarding negligence. The jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of both defendants, answering "no" as to whether Lechtanski and Frascona were negligent. As a result of these answers, the jury left the remainder of the verdict form blank in accordance with the instructions.

         ¶6 In response to the verdict, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a new trial under Rule 59(d), arguing that the jury's verdict was an irregularity that resulted in an unfair trial and was also a miscarriage of justice.[3] The trial court granted the motion, agreeing that the jury's verdict was a "miscarriage of justice." The trial court also stated that the jury misunderstood its role, and it pointed to the sustained objection to the question about apportionment as a possible cause of the jury's confusion.

         ¶7 The defendants filed a petition to this court to show cause, arguing that the motion was improperly granted because the trial court failed to state legally sufficient grounds for a new trial under Rule 59(d). We exercised our original jurisdiction under C.A.R. 21 because a motion for a new trial, if improperly granted, would result in hardship to the parties as they would be required to proceed with another trial before the order granting that new trial could be challenged through the normal avenues of appeal.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶8 We review a trial court's order for a new trial for an abuse of discretion. Aspen Skiing Co. v. Peer, 804 P.2d 166, 172 (Colo. 1991). A trial court abuses its discretion when its ruling is "manifestly arbitrary, unreasonable, or unfair," or when it misapplies the law. Freedom Colo. Info., Inc. v. El Paso Cty. Sheriff's Dep't, 196 P.3d 892, 899 (Colo. 2008).

         III. Analysis

         ¶9 To answer whether the trial court abused its discretion, we first look to whether the trial court's stated reasons for granting a new trial met the requirements of Rule 59(d). While the trial court did not explain how its reasoning fit within the grounds enumerated in Rule 59(d), based on its order and the plaintiffs' arguments, we focus our analysis on Rule 59(d)(1): irregularity in the proceedings. In so doing, we conclude that none of the trial court's stated reasons constitutes an irregularity under Rule 59(d)(1).

         ¶10 We then decide whether a trial court may grant a new trial for a reason other than those listed in Rule 59(d). More specifically, we consider whether a trial court may grant a new trial when it deems the jury's verdict to be a "miscarriage of justice," as the trial court did in this case. Because a "miscarriage of justice" is not one of the enumerated grounds under Rule 59(d), we conclude that a trial court may not grant a new trial for that reason alone. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court abused its discretion in granting a new trial.

          A. Grounds for a New Trial Under Rule 59(d)

         1. Law

         ¶11 Rule 59 governs motions for post-trial relief, including motions for new trials. C.R.C.P. 59(a)(1). Rule 59(d) lists six distinct grounds for a new trial:

(1) Any irregularity in the proceedings by which any party was prevented from having a fair trial; (2) Misconduct of the jury; (3) Accident or surprise, which ordinary prudence could not have guarded against; (4) Newly discovered evidence, material for the party making the application which that party could not, with reasonable diligence, have discovered and produced at the trial; (5) Excessive or inadequate damages; or (6) Error in law.

(Formatting altered.) The trial court here did not explain how its reasoning for granting a new trial-the jury's verdict, possible jury confusion, and a sustained objection-fit into the grounds provided in Rule 59(d). The plaintiffs' original motion for a new trial referenced Rule 59(d)(1) (irregularity in the proceedings resulting in an unfair trial), Rule 59(d)(5) (excessive or inadequate damages), and Rule 59(d)(6) (error in law). But the parties' arguments before us focus solely on Rule 59(d)(1). In addition, the ...


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