In this case Mr. Van, the plaintiff, was involved in a car accident caused by the defendant Schmidt. The plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging that the accident caused him back and neck injuries. The defendant conceded fault in causing the accident, but argued that the injuries of the plaintiff, who had a health history including prior back pain and surgery, were not caused by the accident. At trial, experts presented uncontroverted evidence that the plaintiff’s neck injuries were caused by the accident. The defense countered that the accident was a minor one, a fender bender that resulted in $800 in damage to the plaintiff’s car. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant, finding that the accident was not the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Upon a motion, the trial court granted a new trial, holding that the verdict was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence, specifically because the jury could not reject the expert testimony. The First District Court of Appeal reversed, and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to enter a judgment on the verdict. Schmidt v. Van, 65 So.3d 1105 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011). An appeal to the Supreme Court followed.
In its analysis, the Supreme Court pointed out that generally a trial court’s order granting a new trial because a verdict was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence is granted much deference by a reviewing court, and will be upheld unless the trial court abused its discretion. In other words, because the trial court is in a much better position to consider the weight of the evidence in considering a motion for a new trial, “[i]f reasonable [persons] could differ as to the propriety of the action taken by the trial court, then the action is not unreasonable and there can be no finding of an abuse of discretion.” E.R. Squibb & Sons, 697 So.2d 825, 826 (Fla. 1997) (quoting Smith v. Brown, 525 So.2d 868, 870 (Fla. 1988)).
However, such deference is only appropriate to the extent that the trial court’s order on a motion for a new trial is based on matters of fact. In this case, the First District reasoned, and the Supremes agreed, that the trial court’s order granting the new trial was based on the incorrect legal conclusion that the jury could not reject the expert testimony because it was not contradicted by other expert testimony. This justification was incorrect as a matter of law, as a jury may reject uncontroverted expert testimony if other evidence provides a basis to do so. In this case evidence of the minor nature of the accident may have provided such a basis.
The Supreme Court rejected the First District’s instructions to enter a judgment on the verdict, however, because it was unclear that the trial court would not have granted a new trial absent its mistaken interpretation of the law. The Court ordered the case to be remanded and the trial court to consider whether the jury verdict was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence in light of the jury’s authority to reject uncontroverted expert testimony if it a sufficient evidentiary basis to do so.