Tilley v. Sparrow, 431 S.W.3d 392, 2014 Ark. App. 23 (2014)

Jan. 15, 2014 · Arkansas Court of Appeals · No. CV-13-470
431 S.W.3d 392, 2014 Ark. App. 23

2014 Ark. App. 23

David R. TILLEY, Appellant v. Debbie SPARROW, Appelllee.

No. CV-13-470.

Court of Appeals of Arkansas.

Jan. 15, 2014.

*394Smith, Williams & Meeks L.L.P., by: Richard A. Smith, for appellant.

Brett D. Watson, Attorney at Law, PLLC, by: Brett D. Watson; and Peel Law Firm, P.A., Russellville, by: Richard L. Peel, for appellee.


_JjThe appellant, David R. Tilley, appeals from an order granting a motion for a new trial in favor of appellee, Debbie Sparrow, following a jury verdict for appellant. He argues that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the motion. We affirm.

This case arose out of a vehicular accident that took place on April 8, 2005, at an intersection controlled by traffic lights in Russellville, Arkansas. The intersection was of two multi-lane streets, Parkway and El Paso. Parkway is a four-lane street without turning bays. Immediately before the accident occurred, appellant was stopped in the eastbound left lane of Parkway, waiting to turn left (north) onto El Paso. He was directly opposite a truck stopped in the westbound left lane of Parkway that was likewise attempting to turn left (south) onto El Paso. When the light turned green, appellant waited until several cars in the outside westbound lane passed the truck opposite him and cleared the intersection. He then turned left, heard something strike the rear of his car, and saw appellee’s motorcycle on the 12ground in the center of the intersection. Appellant testified that he “looked as best he could” before turning but never saw appellee’s motorcycle until after the collision. At the time of the accident, appellant was a seventy-year-old retired high school social studies teacher, coach, and driver’s education instructor.

Appellee, at the time of the accident, was in her late 30s and was employed as a nuclear plant safety inspector. She had completed a motorcycle-safety course and was an experienced motorcyclist. The only witness to the accident other than the parties testified that appellee was riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle two or three *395car lengths ahead of him in the westbound lanes of Parkway immediately before the collision. Because a truck in front of ap-pellee was signaling a left-hand turn at the intersection, appellee changed from the inside lane to the outside lane. The witness testified that appellee was traveling within the speed limit at between twenty-five and thirty miles per hour; that she signaled and executed the lane change smoothly, under control, and without accelerating or decelerating; and that she completed her lane change in front of a body shop located two lots away from the intersection. Morgan Barrett, a civil engineer who owned a surveying company in Russellville, testified that he inspected the intersection and that the body shop was approximately 220 feet from the point of impact. Officer Lee Goemmer of the Russellville Police Department, who responded to the accident scene, testified that a person turning left is required to yield right-of-way to oncoming traffic at that intersection; that he measured a thirty-four foot skid mark made by appellee’s motorcycle to the point of impact; and that there were no skid marks made by appellant’s vehicle. Finally, Officer Goemmer testified | athat appellant stated at the scene that he did not see appellee’s motorcycle until after the collision.

After a jury returned a verdict for appellant on this evidence, appellee moved for a new trial on the grounds that the jury’s verdict was clearly contrary to the preponderance of the evidence. The trial court granted the motion, and this appeal followed.

The law affecting the granting of a new trial and appellate review of that decision is settled. The Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure permit a circuit judge to order a new trial if the jury’s verdict is clearly contrary to the preponderance of the evidence. Ark. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(6). The test we apply on review of the grant of the motion is whether the trial court abused its discretion. Razorback Cab v. Martin, 313 Ark. 445, 856 S.W.2d 2 (1993). We will not reverse the grant of a new trial unless the trial court has clearly and manifestly abused its discretion by acting improvidently or thoughtlessly without due consideration. Young v. Honeycutt, 324 Ark. 120, 919 S.W.2d 216 (1996). A showing of abuse is more difficult when a new trial has been granted because the party opposing the motion will have another opportunity to prevail. Id.

Appellant cites Arkansas Model Instructions-Civil 603 (2012) for the proposition that the mere fact that an accident occurs is not, of itself, evidence of negligence or fault on the part of any person. He argues that the jury could have found that he exercised proper care in making his left turn and that appellee swerved suddenly from a position of concealment behind the westbound, left-turning truck into the outside lane, making it impossible for him 14to see her in time to avoid the collision. We cannot, on this record, say that the trial court manifestly abused its discretion by granting a new trial.

In finding that a new trial was properly granted in Richardson v. Flanery, 316 Ark. 310, 313, 871 S.W.2d 589, 590-91 (1994), the court said:

The only evidence tending to disprove the allegations of negligence against Mrs. Richardson is her own testimony regarding the cause of the accident. However, it is unrefuted that the Flan-erys had the right-of-way when the accident occurred. Even Mrs. Richardson offered no explanation for how the accident occurred, other than to claim that the Flanerys struck her, rather than vice versa: ‘Yeah, I did not see. I slowed down. I looked. I did not see *396him. I mean, I didn’t see their automobile, truck.”

In the present case, it is likewise unrefut-ed that appellee had the right of way, and the only defense asserted was that appellant did not see appellee before the collision. Furthermore, although appellant suggests that appellee may have swerved from behind the turning truck at the last moment, this is pure speculation and is contrary to the detailed testimony of the eyewitness and the physical evidence of thirty-four feet of motorcycle skid marks all in the outside lane of traffic. We hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting appellee’s motion for new trial, and we affirm.1


*397GLADWIN, C.J., and WALMSLEY, WYNNE, and GRUBER, JJ., agree.

HARRISON, J., dissents.



The majority has concluded that there was no abuse of discretion in granting Sparrow’s motion for a new trial. This conclusion is based on its finding that it was “unrefuted that appellee had the right of way, and the only defense asserted was that appellant did not see appellee before the collision.” I disagree with the majority’s conclusion and would hold that the circuit court abused its discretion by substituting its own view of the evidence for that of the jury. Because I would uphold the unanimous twelve-person jury verdict that was rendered in Tilley’s favor, I respectfully dissent.

| fiSome additional factual detail helps show why I believe the circuit court and the majority have erred. As the majority explained, Officer Lee Goemmer testified that Tilley’s left-turning vehicle had to yield the right of way at the intersection where the accident occurred. But the officer also said that he was familiar with the intersection, that it was difficult to see oncoming traffic, and that to make a left turn as Tilley had done, a person must “ease out into the intersection. [Y]ou have to work your way out so you can see further. You have to kind of move into the intersection so you can see.” Officer Goemmer confirmed on the witness stand that he did not issue a citation to Tilley or Sparrow.

Nolan Edwards, who saw the accident, testified that he observed Sparrow change lanes, from the inside lane to the outside lane, in front of him and then proceed through the intersection, where she hit Tilley’s vehicle. He told the jury that the intersection was a “rotten” one and that he didn’t see anything until Sparrow locked up her brakes. According to Edwards, neither Tilley nor Sparrow appeared to be speeding or driving abnormally. On cross-examination, Edwards agreed that the intersection was a “blind hole” and that someone waiting to turn left has to “take an extra effort.”

Sparrow testified that she was driving her motorcycle normally, not speeding, and had just moved from the inside lane to the outside lane because the truck in front of her was turning left. She said that she knew she was going to hit Tilley because “he was over right coming directly at me as I’m going straight through my lane with a green light.” On cross-examination, she agreed that she was familiar with the intersection and that it was a “fair assumption” that Tilley could not see her.

|7For Tilley’s part, he testified that he waited while six or eight cars passed through the intersection after the light had turned green; then he looked again down the street and saw no one in the outside lane. He, too, stated that this was a “bad intersection” and that “you probably don’t see less than half the block.” And speaking from his experience as a driver-education instructor, Tilley agreed that he had looked as best he could before he turned left and stated, “I’ve probably told kids a thousand times to do that. So it’s kind of in my mind.” He confirmed that he had *398checked the outside lane before he initiated his turn, that he “could see nothing in the outside lane,” and that he was not trying to beat anyone across the intersection or otherwise hurry for any reason.

The jury weighed all the evidence presented and rejected Sparrow’s case against Tilley. But the circuit court viewed the evidence differently, as is evident in its explanation for why it granted Sparrow a second chance to win her case:

I find that [the verdict] was contrary to the evidence. I don’t know exactly [how] they arrived at the verdict they came to. But based on the evidence I heard and based on the examination of the evidence after the fact, I do not know how a jury, based on this evidence, could have come to the conclusion because there’s a—there was a prima facie case established, but there was nothing, there’s no substantive evidence on the other side of that question.... You’ve got a defendant who’s saying I didn’t see her. Who virtually admits to not keeping a proper lookout and not doing what the rules of the road require him to do. So I don’t know how the jury came to the verdict it did.... [T]he only conclusion I can reach is [the jury] didn’t do its job on the issue of liability.... [A] motion for new trial is granted.

Tilley did not virtually admit, to use the circuit court’s words, that he failed to keep a proper lookout. This case was contested, on all issues, from beginning to end. Though lathe circuit court clearly held an opinion of the evidence opposite the jury’s, it was not the fact-finder in this case.

The majority is correct that our case law on the granting of a new trial is clear. A circuit court “may not substitute its view of the evidence for that of the jury and grant a new trial unless the verdict is dearly against the preponderance of the evidence.” Razorback Cab of Fort Smith, Inc. v. Martin, 313 Ark. 445, 446, 856 S.W.2d 2, 3 (1993) (emphasis in original). Whether a circuit court properly granted a motion for new trial is tested under the abuse-of-discretion standard. Carlew v. Wright, 356 Ark. 208, 148 S.W.3d 237 (2004).

Here, the jury heard conflicting versions of the facts, was properly instructed, and no one claims that anything went afoul during the deliberative process. So it was up to the jury as the finder of fact to weigh all the evidence and resolve the issues of fact. The jury simply resolved any conflicting evidence—including any credibility issues—in Tilley’s favor. We should honor the jury’s decision. This case is akin to Razorback Cab, supra, where our supreme court disagreed with the circuit court’s decision that the verdict was clearly against the preponderance of the evidence. Like Razorback Cab, in this case “there was testimony of a substantial nature which quite plainly supported the verdict, and which was at least the equivalent of any countervailing evidence.” 313 Ark. at 448, 856 S.W.2d at 4.

I would hold that the circuit court here substituted its own view of the evidence for that of the jury’s and therefore abused its discretion. Contrary to Sparrow’s characterization, the evidence is not “overwhelmingly” in her favor; the evidence reasonably supports either side’s position. Sparrow and the majority seem to reason that, because an accident occurred |9while Sparrow had the right of way, Tilley was necessarily negligent. But the jury was correctly instructed the opposite way: “The fact that a collision occurred is not, of itself, evidence of negligence on the part of anyone.” The jury was also told, among other things, that it was “the sole judge[ ] of the weight of the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses,” and that when considering the evidence it was “not re*399quired to set aside your common knowledge, but you have the right to consider all the evidence in the light of your own observations and experiences in the affairs of life.” Because the jury was properly instructed and its verdict was not clearly against the preponderance of the evidence, we should be reversing, not affirming, the circuit court’s order that granted Sparrow a second chance to win when she had a full and fair hearing the first time but simply failed to persuade the jury.