Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Affirms Jury Verdict and Denies Plaintiffs’ Motion for New Trial

On April 27, 2020, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial.1  Plaintiff Fanny Quevedo, was seriously injured during a severe turbulence encounter on Iberia Airlines Flight 3252 from Madrid, Spain to Milan, Italy.  Quevedo and her husband sued Iberia Airlines in the Southern District of Florida under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention for her injuries and his loss of consortium.  Prior to trial the District Court determined that the turbulence was an accident under the Convention.  However, at the close of trial, the jury found Iberia and Quevedo each negligent but that Quevedo was 99% at fault and thus reduced Quevedo’s damages to just over $11,000.  Plaintiffs moved for judgment as a matter of law, or alternatively, a new trial.  The District Court judge, Judge Robert N. Scola, denied the motion on August 13, 2019, holding that the jury’s verdict was not contrary to the great weight of the evidence.  Thereafter, plaintiffs’ filed an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its opinion, the Eleventh Circuit reiterated the court’s “duty to safeguard the role of the jury” and noted the “exacting” standard of review for a district court’s denial of a motion for a new trial.2 On a motion for a new trial, the trial judge is free to weigh the evidence favoring both the jury verdict and the moving party. The Court recognized the deferential abuse of discretion standard as particularly appropriate where a new trial is denied and the jury’s verdict is left undisturbed.  The Court concluded that in this case the jury verdict was not contrary to the great weight of the evidence and affirmed the district court’s denial of Quevedo’s motion for a new trial.

Iberia Flight 3252

In May, 2015, Fanny Quevedo flew from Miami, Florida to Milan, Italy, with a change of planes in Madrid, Spain.  On the first leg of her trip, Quevedo was injured by a tripod that fell from an overhead compartment and landed on her pelvis.  Although tired and in pain, Quevedo continued on the second leg of her journey to Milan.  The flight was scheduled to land at Milan-Malpensa airport, with Genoa and Milan-Linate serving as alternate airports.

As the aircraft approached Milan-Malpensa, the weather deteriorated and the airport temporarily closed.  Flight 3252 entered holding, and then diverted to Milan-Linate since Genoa was no longer accepting traffic.  While en route to Milan-Linate, the flight encountered severe turbulence.  Quevedo, whose seatbelt was unfastened, was seriously injured.  Also injured was a flight attendant who had unfastened his seatbelt when he noticed Quevedo’s seatbelt was no longer fastened and rose to assist her.

Quevedo argued that Iberia negligently failed to ensure her seatbelt was fastened and negligently diverted to Milan-Linate.  Plaintiffs asserted one cause of action under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention, seeking recovery for injuries sustained during the flight, as well as a loss of consortium claim by her husband.  Iberia argued that Quevedo was herself negligent because she failed to fasten her seatbelt before falling asleep.  Iberia asserted affirmative defenses of comparative negligence and to limit liability under Montreal Convention Articles 20 and 21.  At the close of the seven-day trial, the jury determined Quevedo’s full damages to be $175,000 in past and future medical expenses and $1 million in damages for pain and suffering, but awarded zero loss of consortium damages to her husband.  The jurors found Iberia only one percent liable, with Mrs. Quevedo bearing 99% of the fault for her injuries.  Thus, her award was $11,750.

On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the District Court should have granted a new trial because the jury’s allocation of fault was against the great weight of the evidence, contending there was overwhelming evidence in the record of Iberia’s negligence.  The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that Quevedo and the flight attendant were the only two individuals with unfastened seatbelts, and they were the only two individuals severely injured in the turbulence encounter.  The Court cited to Quevedo’s statements that she was an experienced traveler, she had heard Iberia’s safety instructions recommending that passengers keep their seatbelts fastened during the flight, and that she knew securing her seatbelt could be “essential for [her] life.”3 As a result, the Court concluded there was some evidence to support the jury’s allocation of fault.

The Court of Appeals’ decision reflects the broad discretion that U.S. district courts are afforded in deciding a motion for a new trial.  As the Court of Appeals explained, since the trial judge and jury are firsthand observers of the witnesses and the trial, they are better able to evaluate witness credibility and resolve conflicting evidence.  In order for a new trial to be granted, the verdict must be against the great, and not merely the greater, weight of the evidence.  Courts remain reluctant to invade the province of the jury and will do so only in the event of a clear absence of credible evidence for a jury verdict.  As long as there is some support for the jury’s decision, it is irrelevant whether the trial judge or the Court of Appeals would have reached a different conclusion, and the jury verdict will not be disturbed.

Disclaimer: This publication is made available for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. If you have questions about any matters in this publication, please contact the authors directly.  General inquiries may be directed to info@nullcondonlaw.com.

1 Fanny Quevedo, et al v. Iberia Lineas Aereas de Espana, No. 19-13514 (11th Cir. Apr. 27, 2020).

2 Id. at 8 (quoting Rabun v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 678 F.2d 1053, 1060 (11th Cir. 1982).

3 Id. at 10.