This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Ella Mae Oja-Lake,
Michael John Neumiller, et al.,
Aitkin County District Court
File No. C699682
James T. Martin, Julian C. Janes, Gislason, Martin & Varpness, P.A., Suite 444, 7600 Parklawn Ave., Edina, Minnesota 55435 (for appellant)
Austin D. Ditzler, Leo I. Brisbois, Attorneys at Law, The Crossings, Suite 120, 250 Second Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55401-2190 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Willis, Judge.
Ella Mae Oja-Lake sued Michael Neumiller and his employer for injuries sustained when Neumiller’s tractor-trailer rear-ended Oja-Lake’s car. The jury found both drivers negligent and apportioned 80% of the negligence to Oja-Lake and 20% to Neumiller. Oja-Lake moved for a new trial, alleging reversible evidentiary error and that neither the apportionment of fault nor the denial of general damages can be justified by the record. We conclude that it was within the district court’s discretion to exclude evidence of the employer’s safety review and to deny Oja-Lake a new trial based on the jury’s apportionment of liability and its assessment of damages. Affirmed.
Oja-Lake testified that she activated her left turn signal about 600-700 feet before the point at which her driveway intersected the highway and then tapped her brakes because the tractor trailer did not seem to be slowing up. Because Oja-Lake had her wheels turned to the left when she was rear-ended, she was propelled across the opposing traffic lane and hit by a southbound pickup truck. The pickup-truck driver did not remember seeing any left turn signal on the Oja-Lake vehicle. The state trooper who investigated the accident testified that he could not determine whether the left turn signal was illuminated at impact, but when he retrieved and examined the bulbs for Oja-Lake's rear-left brake light and her rear-left turn signal he noted that the filament in the rear-left brake light was distorted indicating that the filament was hot or energized at the time of impact, whereas the filament in the rear-left turn signal was not distorted, thus indicating it was not hot or energized at impact.
Oja-Lake's attorney sought to introduce at trial the results of an internal safety review conducted by Neumiller’s employer, Marvin Lumber & Cedar Company. In the offer of proof, her attorney stated that when an accident occurs involving a Marvin Lumber employee, the company convenes a review board that considers evidence on whether the accident was avoidable. According to the offer of proof, the review board determined that the accident was avoidable, and Neumiller received a reprimand. The district court excluded this evidence, finding that the prejudicial effect outweighed its probative value.
The jury found Oja-Lake 80% negligent and Neumiller 20% negligent. The verdict provided $38,000 for past medical expenses, but no amount for past and future pain and suffering, despite undisputed expert medical testimony that Oja-Lake sustained a dislocated cervical disc at C5-6 that was properly corrected by surgery.
Oja-Lake moved for a new trial, claiming the evidence did not justify the jury verdict and that the district court’s exclusion of the evidence of the employer’s safety review board constituted reversible error. The district court denied the new-trial motion, and Oja-Lake appeals.
Oja-Lake challenges the denial of her new-trial motion, asserting that the evidence is insufficient to justify the jury’s apportionment of negligence or determination on damages. The district court should not grant a new trial on grounds of insufficient evidence unless the verdict is so contrary to the preponderance of the evidence as to imply that the jury failed to consider the evidence or acted under mistake or improper motive. Lamb v. Jordan, 333 N.W.2d 852, 855-56 (Minn. 1983).
Appellate courts apply an abuse-of-discretion standard to a district court’s decision on a motion for a new trial. LaValle v. Aqualand Pool Co., 257 N.W.2d 324, 328 (Minn. 1977); see also Grorud v. Thomasson, 287 Minn. 531, 534, 177 N.W.2d 51, 53 (Minn. 1970) (this ground vests the “broadest possible discretionary power in the trial court”). This degree of deference is warranted when the district court hears the testimony and observes the witnesses and is, therefore, in a better position to determine whether the verdict may have been influenced by passion and prejudice. LaValle, 257 N.W.2d at 328. Thus an appellate court is not free to set aside a verdict merely because it might have ruled differently or believes that the jury should have drawn different inferences and conclusions from the conflicting testimony.
Determining whether a driver is negligent in a rear-end collision is almost always an issue for the jury. Ryan v. Griffin, 241 Minn. 91, 94-95, 62 N.W.2d 504, 507 (1954). A leading car and a following car owe reciprocal duties to one another; these duties cannot be stated in a fixed rule. Id. In each case, except when reasonable minds may not differ, the question of what due care requires and whether it has been exercised is for the jury. Id. (holding that when the evidence shows that a leading car suddenly stopped without warning, the matter must be submitted for jury trial).
The apportionment of negligence between drivers is also uniquely within the province of the jury. Riley v. Lake, 295 Minn. 43, 58, 203 N.W.2d 331, 340 (1972). Thus, while an appellate court may conclude that one party is negligent as a matter of law, the issue of how negligence should be apportioned between the parties is a matter best left to the jury—except in rare cases when the factfinder could reasonably reach only one conclusion. Id. (granting new trial when jury found plaintiff free from negligence despite her clear violation of traffic laws, but stating that apportionment of negligence between plaintiff and defendant was for jury).
The district court concluded that the evidence submitted at trial was sufficient to support the jury’s apportionment of negligence. The court reasoned that the evidence submitted at trial supported a finding that: (1) Oja-Lake failed to signal her turn; and (2) her brake lights did not come on until immediately before the impact. The court reasoned that on this evidence the jury could find that the failure to use a turn signal or to apply her brakes and activate her brake lights within a reasonable distance from her contemplated left turn was a direct cause of the accident. On this analysis, the question of who bears the greater share of causal negligence, that is, the apportionment of negligence, is a question for the jury, and the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying a motion for a new trial. See id.
Oja-Lake claims that the only logical explanation for the accident is that Neumiller was not paying attention to the events unfolding in front of him, citing Smith v. Carriere, 316 N.W.2d 574 (Minn. 1982). But Smith is distinguishable because in Smith, the evidence failed to show any negligence of the plaintiff-driver who was traveling 30-40 mph in blowing snow and poor visibility conditions when he was rear-ended. Competent evidence that Oja-Lake failed to signal her turn, or to activate her brake lights earlier by coming to a gradual stop, supports the jury’s determination that she was negligent. Relying on the testimony of Neumiller, a jury could reasonably find that Oja-Lake’s failure to signal her left turn on a 55-mph highway, and her failure to activate her brake lights until immediately before her stop, violated applicable traffic laws and caused the accident.
Oja-Lake also claims that the damages verdict is not justified by the evidence. But if a no-liability verdict is supported by credible evidence, the denial of damages will not entitle an appellant to a new trial. Otterness v. Horsley, 263 N.W.2d 403, 405 (Minn. 1978). The apportionment of negligence was supported by the evidence, and consequently, we decline to address the jury’s failure to award general damages.
Oja-Lake also claims she is entitled to a new trial because the district court improperly excluded results of a post-accident safety review by Marvin Lumber. Evidentiary rulings are within the discretion of the trial court and will only be disturbed when based on an erroneous view of the law or when the ruling constitutes an abuse of discretion. Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 138 (Minn. 1990). To justify a new trial, appellant must demonstrate not only error but that the error resulted in prejudice. H. Window Co. v. Cascade Wood Products Inc., 596 N.W.2d 271, 276 (Minn. App. 1999), review denied (Minn. Aug 17, 1999).
Rule 403 permits the district court to exclude even relevant evidence if the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, or if the admission of the evidence would result in the needless presentation of cumulative or confusing evidence. Minn. R. Evid. 403. We conclude that the exclusion of the safety-review evidence was within the discretion of the district court. The offer of proof did not suggest that Neumiller testified in the post-accident review process in a manner inconsistent with his trial testimony. Further, Oja-Lake has not demonstrated that the employer’s post-accident review used a general negligence standard to determine whether the accident was avoidable. Thus the record does not establish that either the methodology or the ultimate decision of the employee safety review process was directly relevant to the negligence trial.
Oja-Lake relies on the reasoning of Johnson v. Washington County, 518 N.W.2d 594 (Minn. 1994). In Johnson, the supreme court upheld the admissibility of a post-accident investigation as within the district court’s discretion. Id. at 601. Johnson, however, demonstrates the latitude of the district court’s discretion in ruling on evidentiary issues more than it demonstrates that post-accident reports are generally admissible. The district court’s decision to exclude evidence of Marvin Lumber's safety review was not an abuse of discretion. We further note that the evidentiary ruling was likely not prejudicial because the jury found Neumiller causally negligent for the accident; it is the jury's finding on the degree of negligence that is at issue.