United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART
DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL OR IN THE ALTERNATIVE
Benjamin H. Settle United States District Judge.
matter comes before the Court on Defendant National Railroad
Passenger Corporation d/b/a Amtrak's
(“Amtrak”) motion for new trial or in the
alternative remittitur. Dkt. 142. The Court has considered
the pleadings filed in support of and in opposition to the
motion and the remainder of the file and hereby grants the
motion in part and denies it in part for the reasons stated
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
January 4, 2018, Plaintiffs Blaine (“Blaine”) and
Madison (“Madison”) Wilmotte (collectively
“Wilmottes”) filed a complaint for damages
against Amtrak in King County Superior Court for the State of
Washington. Dkt. 1-2. On January 19, 2018, Amtrak removed the
matter to this Court. Dkt. 1.
3, 2018, Dale Skyllingstad (“Skyllingstad”) filed
a complaint for damages against Amtrak. C18-0684BHS, Dkt. 1.
December 12, 2018, the Court granted the parties'
stipulated motion to consolidate these matters for trial with
a similar matter, Harris v. National Railroad Passenger
Corporation, C18-0134 (“Harris”),
three cases stem from the derailment of Amtrak 501 on
December 18, 2017. Skyllingstad was a passenger on the train
and sustained serious injuries when he was thrown from the
train landing on the interstate below the point of
derailment. Blaine was a passenger in a vehicle driving on
the interstate and sustained serious injuries when a train
car fell onto the vehicle. Madison asserted a claim for loss
of consortium. Amtrak admitted liability, and the issues at
trial were each plaintiff's damages.
August 20, 2019, the Court held a pretrial conference. Dkt.
96. Trial commenced on September 3, 2019 and lasted for eight
days. On September 13, 2019, the jury returned a verdict as
follows: Skyllingstad - past and future economic damages of
$700, 000 and past and future noneconomic damages of $7, 000,
000; Blaine - past and future economic damages of $1, 000,
000 and past and future noneconomic damages of $6, 000, 000;
and Madison - past and future loss of consortium damages of
$2, 000, 000. Dkt. 126.
October 11, 2019, Amtrak filed the instant motion for a new
trial or in the alternative remittitur. Dkt. 142. On October
28, 2019, Plaintiffs responded. Dkt. 147. On November 11,
2019, Amtrak replied. Dkt. 150.
“court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some
of the issues-and to any party . . . after a jury trial, for
any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted
in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P.
59(a)(1)(A). “Rule 59 does not specify the grounds on
which a motion for new trial may be granted.”
Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th
Cir. 2007). Rather, the court is “bound by those
grounds that have been historically recognized.”
Id. “Historically recognized grounds include,
but are not limited to, claims ‘that the verdict is
against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are
excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair
to the party moving.'” Id. (citation
case, Amtrak's motion for a new trial is based on (1) an
excessive verdict as a result of consolidating the matters,
(2) misconduct by Plaintiffs' counsel, and (3) errors by
the Court. Dkt. 142 at 4-20.
argues that it suffered prejudice from the consolidation.
Although Amtrak fails to elaborate on this alleged prejudice,
it contends that consolidation led to an excessive verdict.
On that issue, the Court must apply state law in determining
whether damages awarded on a state law claim are excessive.
Cosby v. AutoZone, Inc., 445 Fed.Appx. 914, 916 (9th
Cir. 2011). In Washington, courts are authorized by statute
to order a new trial if “the damages awarded by a jury
. . . [ are] so excessive or inadequate as unmistakably to
indicate that the amount thereof must have been the result of
passion or prejudice.” RCW 4.76.030. In addition to
“passion or prejudice, ” Washington courts
recognize as grounds for a new trial that the damages either
“are outside the range of substantial evidence in the
record” or “shock the conscience of the
court.” Green v. McAllister, 103 Wn.App. 452,
Amtrak objects to the “Court's consolidation of
Plaintiffs' separate and very distinct damage claims . .
. .” Dkt. 142 at 6. Contrary to Amtrak's
description of consolidation, the Court granted the
parties' stipulated motion to consolidate.
Harris, Dkt. 38. Now, Amtrak implies that the Court
should have sua sponte denied that stipulation.
Amtrak provides no authority, and the Court is unaware of
any, for the proposition that the Court either committed
legal error or abused its discretion in granting the
parties' stipulated motion to consolidate three cases in
which the “parties believe[d] . . . involve[d] similar
claims and counsel . . . .” Id. at 1.
Moreover, Amtrak fails to cite any actual objection to
consolidation during trial. It even admits that it only
“expressed growing concerns at the pretrial conference
and during the course of trial . . . .” Dkt. 142 at 7.
Amtrak fails to establish that a “growing
concern” constitutes an actual objection. Therefore,
the Court concludes that Amtrak waived any objection to
consolidation and denies the motion on this issue.
Amtrak argues that it was prejudiced by Plaintiffs'
presentation of evidence and the consolidated closing
arguments. Dkt. 142 at 4-6. Specifically, Amtrak states as
[Plaintiffs' counsel] chose to: (i) start their case by
introducing, in no particular sequence, the medical evidence
supporting the Plaintiffs' damage claims, (ii) put
plaintiffs on the witness stand as their very last witnesses
before resting, rather than start with a plaintiff's
testimony, followed immediately by the medical evidence
supporting that plaintiff's damage claims; and (iii) in
closing argument, treat Blaine Wilmotte and Dale Skyllingstad
as basically entitled to the same noneconomic damages,
despite the very distinct experiences each had and the
injuries each sustained as a result of the derailment.
Id. at 5-6. Amtrak fails to establish that parties
must present evidence in a particular manner such that
failure to follow that procedure results in prejudicial
confusion. The Court routinely accepts evidence “out of
order” for the convenience of parties and witnesses on
the premise that jurors will comprehend the entire story even
if it is presented in a slightly disjointed manner.
Regardless, Amtrak fails to establish any prejudice in
Plaintiffs' presentation of evidence. Instead, Amtrak
works backwards from the premise of an unfairly inflated
verdict to conclude that somehow the jury must have been
confused. Working forward, the Court found no error in
Plaintiffs' presentation then and finds none now.
Moreover, Amtrak fails to cite any objection ...