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Bryant v. Reams

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 9, 2018

TAMARA BRYANT, Plaintiff,
v.
EARL BYRON REAMS, II, and THE H. NEIL REAMS FAMILY LLLP, a Colorado limited liability limited partnership, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Nina Y. Wang, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter comes before the court on Plaintiff Tamara Bryant's ("Plaintiff or "Ms. Bryant") Plaintiffs Motion for a New Trial Based on Insufficiency of Evidence Supporting the Verdict ("the Motion" or "the Motion for a New Trial"). [#183, filed July 10, 2018]. Ms. Bryant filed the Motion after this court presided over a jury trial in June 2018 wherein a duly sworn jury of eight individuals returned a complete verdict for the Defendants in this action. Defendants Earl Byron Reams, II and the H. Neil Reams Family LLP ("Reams Defendants") filed their Response on August 31, 2018 [#196], and Ms. Bryant filed her Reply on October 15, 2018 [#201]. The court has determined that oral argument would not materially assist its resolution of the Motion, and thus the matter is now fully ripe and ready for disposition. For the reasons stated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order, the Motion for a New Trial is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         The Reams Defendants own and graze cattle on Parcel 079, located near Highway 145 south of Naturita, Colorado. [#92 at 3-4]. Parcel 079 is partially fenced by both the Colorado Department of Transportation ("CDOT") and the Reams Defendants, but there are unfenced areas where cows may exit the property and wander onto other property, including the highway. [Id. at 3]. This unfenced area is located near natural barriers such as steep hill grades. On December 21, 2015, Plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle travelling southbound on Highway 145 when the vehicle struck a cow owned by the Reams Defendant that had recently been hit in a separate, unrelated automobile collision. [Id. at 1-2]. Plaintiff was gravely wounded and lost her right arm. [Id. at 2].

         Plaintiff originally sued CDOT along with Defendants Earl Byron Reams, II and the H. Neil Reams Family LLLP, John William Reams, and Trace Campbell, a rancher with a seasonal lease to graze cattle on nearby land. [#1; #92 at 3]. Ms. Bryant asserted two claims against CDOT: (1) premises liability pursuant to Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-115; and (2) common law negligence. [#1]. Ms. Bryant asserted a single claim for negligence against the Reams Defendants and John Reams, and a claim for civil conspiracy between the Reams Defendants and Defendant Campbell. [Id.]. A First Amended Complaint added Wendy Campbell as a defendant as well [#28], but Plaintiff subsequently dismissed both Campbell Defendants and the civil conspiracy claim. [#34; #35]. The court then permitted a Second Amended Complaint to allow Plaintiff to pursue exemplary damages. [#56].

         After the close of discovery, CDOT moved for summary judgment as to the premises liability claim but not as to the common law negligence claim. The court sua sponte raised the issue pursuant to Rule 56(f) and ordered the Parties to address whether the common law negligence claim could lie against CDOT. [#85]. At oral argument, Plaintiff conceded that no claim for common law negligence could lie against CDOT, [#89 at 7:2-15], and the court dismissed the claim with prejudice. [#88]. The court subsequently granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant John Reams and dismissed the exemplary damages demand, [#90], leaving one claim against CDOT for a violation of Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-115 and one claim against the Reams Defendants for common law negligence.

         On May 25, 2018, Plaintiff and CDOT notified the court that they had reached a settlement. [#135]. The Reams Defendants then moved to designate CDOT as a nonparty at fault, [#136; #137], and the court granted the Reams Defendants' motion upon Plaintiffs filing of a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal as to CDOT. [#150; #151]. Thus, the only issue left for trial was the common law negligence claim against the Reams Defendants. An eight-day jury trial commenced on June 4, 2018.

         Some of the material issues at trial were whether the cow at issue had escaped from Parcel 079 and whether the Defendants had used reasonable care in containing the cow from wandering onto the highway. At the conclusion of the trial and after the denial of Defendants' motions for verdicts as a matter of law, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Defendants and against Plaintiff. [#175]. Based on the jury's verdict, this court entered Final Judgment on June 14, 2018. [#178]. On July 10, 2018, Ms. Bryant filed this instant Motion for New Trial, arguing that based on the evidence presented at trial, no reasonable jury could reach the verdict that Defendants were not negligent. [#183].

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1) provides that a court may order a new trial after a jury has returned a verdict. Rule 50(b) provides that a party may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a) and include either jointly or in the alternative a request for a new trial under Rule 59. Thus, although Plaintiff moves for a new trial under both Rule 50(b) and Rule 59, the operative legal standard is that for granting a new trial under Rule 59.

         The decision to grant a new trial is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court. IowaPac. Holdings, LLC v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 853 F.Supp.2d 1094, 1097 (D. Colo. 2012). "A motion for new trial is not regarded with favor and should only be granted with great caution." Id. If a new trial motion asserts that the verdict is not supported by the evidence, the jury's verdict must stand unless it is "clearly, decidedly, or overwhelmingly against the weight of the evidence." M.D. Mark, Inc. v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 565 F.3d 753, 762 (10th Cir. 2009); see also Champion Home Builders v. Shumate, 388 F.2d 806, 808 (10th Cir. 1967) ("[T]he jury verdict must not be preempted unless it has no basis in fact.").

         In ruling on a motion for a new trial, the court considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, United Int'l Holdings, Inc. v. The Wharf (Holdings) Ltd., 210 F.3d 1207, 1227 (10th Cir. 2000), bearing in mind that "the jury has the exclusive function of appraising credibility, determining the weight to be given to the testimony, drawing inferences from the facts established, resolving conflicts in the evidence, and reaching ultimate conclusions of fact." Snyder v. City of Moab, 354 F.3d 1179, 1188 (10th Cir. 2003). The court must not "appraise credibility, re-weigh the evidence, draw [its] own inferences, or resolve conflicts in the evidence." Blissitv. Westlake Hardware, 410 Fed.Appx. 172, 173 (10th Cir. 2011).

         ANALYSIS

         The jury in this case rendered its verdict pursuant to a special verdict form, answering only one question: "Were the defendants, Earl Reams or the H. Neil Reams Family LLLP, negligent?" The jury answered no. [#175 at 1]. The question before the court posed by Ms. Bryant's Rule 59 Motion for a New Trial is whether the jury's finding that the Reams Defendants were not negligent is "clearly, decidedly, or ...


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