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Burden is Heavy When Considering the Weight of the Evidence

In the matter of Hatchigian v. The Connelly Firm, Pennsylvania Superior Court, Case No.: 1413 EDA 2013, the Court weighed in on whether sufficient evidence was presented to warrant a verdict at trial.

The underlying matter was a lawsuit brought by a client against a law firm. The Plaintiff retained the Defendant for legal representation for a reduced fee of $75 per hour and, accordingly, remitted a $750 non-refundable retainer. After three months’ time, Plaintiff terminated Defendant’s representation only two days prior to a pre-trial hearing. Plaintiff proceeded pro se and Defendant filed for, and was granted, leave to withdraw as Plaintiff’s attorney. Defendant did not refund to Plaintiff any of the retainer paid.

Plaintiff subsequently filed a legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary claim against Defendant. In response, Defendant filed a counterclaim requesting compensation for the work performed in excess of the $750.

At arbitration Defendant succeeded against Plaintiff’s claims and was awarded damages against Plaintiff for its counterclaim. Plaintiff appealed to trial. At trial, which was heard by a jury, a verdict was returned against Plaintiff for his claim and against Defendant for its counterclaim. Plaintiff appealed again, this time to Superior Court.

On appeal, the Superior Court reviewed Plaintiff’s argument that the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence presented at the trial. Plaintiff sought a new trial. As an initial matter, Plaintiff also argued that the trial court, in the context of post-trial motions, ruled that Plaintiff waived his weight-of-the-evidence argument; the Superior Court found that the trial court did not rule that Plaintiff waived this argument but, instead, dealt with it directly.

In making his argument that the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence, Plaintiff claimed that the jury did not consider his contentions that Defendant was willing to be flexible regarding its fees, would return unused fees, and did not provide appropriate representation.

The Court noted that it must provide the trial court the “gravest consideration” to its findings and reasons regarding a trial court’s determination that the jury’s verdict was not against the weight of the evidence presented at the trial. Furthermore, the Court pointed out that the determination of witness credibility is an issue solely for the jury to determine. Finally, it is only when the jury’s verdict is so contrary to the evidence that it shocks the conscience that a court is authorized to award a new trial.

In making its ruling, the Superior Court listed all of the facts that the parties agreed to prior to trial which was, indeed, quite lengthy; in the face of that, it is clear that the facts actually in dispute were fairly few in number. Considering the broad agreement between the parties on the facts, and the jury’s discretion when it comes to credibility, there simply was not any justification to suggest that the trial court’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence.

Ultimately, the argument that a court’s verdict is against the weight of the evidence must meet an incredibly high evidentiary standard in order to succeed.

Originally published in Upon Further Review on April 21, 2015 and can be seen here.

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