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Civil Procedure: Standard for Ruling on Directed Verdict vs. New Trial

McBride v. Kieckhefer Assoc., Inc., __Ariz. Adv. Rep. __, 1 CA-CV 09-0299 (App. Div. I, November 3, 2011) (J. Gemmill)

TRIAL COURT MAY WEIGH EVIDENCE AND CONSIDER WITNESS CREDIBILITY ON MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL BUT MAY NOT ON MOTION FOR DIRECTED VERDICT OR MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW/TRIAL COURT IS FINDER OF FACT ON EQUITABLE ESTOPPEL THEORY

Plaintiff sued defendant for damages and the defendant raised the statute of limitations as a defense. The plaintiff responded alleging a tolling agreement and equitable estoppel and the jury agreed. The trial court however granted defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law [JMOL] (Ariz. R. Civ. Proc. 50(b) and defendant's motion for new trial on the issue of the statute of limitations. Plaintiff appealed these rulings and the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part and remanded.

The court of appeals first noted that the JMOL was improper because the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support plaintiffs' argument the statute of limitations was tolled. "When considering motions for directed verdict or JMOL, a trial court may not weigh the credibility of witnesses or resolve conflicts of evidence and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom."

On the other hand, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court's granting of defendant's motion for new trial because "[w]hen ruling on a motion for new trial, a trial court is entitled to evaluate the credibility of witnesses and weigh the evidence to determine if the verdict is against the weight of the evidence and contrary to substantial justice."

Finally, although the jury found the defendant equitably estopped from asserting the statute of limitations, this remedy is equitable in nature and thus the jury is only advisory; the trial court is the ultimate trier of fact. Thus where the trial court found that the defendant did not induce the plaintiff to delay in filing suit, did not engage in misleading conduct causing plaintiff to file suit beyond the statute of limitations, that settlement negotiations did not cause plaintiff to forego filing a timely lawsuit and that plaintiff nonetheless did not file suit within a reasonable period of time after settlement discussions ceased, rejecting the equitable estoppels claim was proper.

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