Godfrey | Johnson Wins Supreme Court Reinstatement of Defense Jury Verdict in Fatal Air Crash Case
Consecutive Successes In Two Separate Appeals
June 25, 2018
Following a successful trial in which Godfrey | Johnson won a defense verdict in a case arising out of an airplane crash resulting in the death of five people, the trial court entered two orders setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial. The Pilot’s estate was represented by Brett Godfrey and Karen Porter. Read details of trial →
After the trial, plaintiffs’ counsel, Bruce Lampert, filed a motion for a new trial, asserting that the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice.” The trial court agreed and set aside the verdict, granting the motion for a new trial. Before the case could be re-tried, Karen Porter of Godfrey | Johnson filed an interlocutory appeal in the form of a petition for an original writ to the Colorado Supreme Court, and won that appeal.
The Supreme Court vacated the order granting a new trial and remanded the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings, at which time the plaintiffs filed a second motion for a new trial, which the trial court promptly granted, finding that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice and was not supported by the evidence.
Godfrey | Johnson returned to the Supreme Court, filing a second interlocutory appeal in an effort to preserve the verdict in favor of its client, arguing that the trial court did not properly apply the requirements of Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 59(d) and that it did not properly evaluate the evidence supporting the verdict. At issue was the effect of expert testimony from aircraft accident recinstructionists and the the trial court’s instructions to the jury.
At the core of the plaintiffs’ motions for a new trial and the trial court orders granting those motions was the assertion that in an airplane crash, someone must be at fault. In this regard, plaintiffs had argued for—and—a res ipsa loquitur instruction, which in Colorado does not require a jury to find in favor of a plaintiff on the issue of liability but creates a rebuttable presumption that the accident was the result of negligence.
To rebut that presumption, Godfrey | Johnson offered evidence that the crash was the result of a near-miss that occurred when an airplane passed very close to the airplane that crashed, which upset the flight profile of the landing aircraft on “short-final,” seconds before landing. Godfrey | Johnson introduced expert testimony that the psychological and physiological effects of an unexpected emergency during the most sensitive phase of the flight—landing—was sufficient to cause an accident without negligence or fault on the part of the pilot. During closing argument, Brett Godfrey argued that the pilot was “guilty of being human, but not guilty of negligence,” and the jury agreed.
After reviewing the trial record, the Supreme Court found that the trial court had improperly applied the rule upon which it relied in granting a new trial—pertaining to an irregularity in the proceedings—and found that the verdict itself could not constitute such an irregularity. The Supreme Court further addressed the fact that the trial court had sustained a defense objection to certain parts of plaintiffs’ expert testimony, noting that the trial court’s instructions to the jury sufficiently eliminated any confusion on the part of the jury. The order granting a new trial was vacated, and the case was remanded to the district court.
Additional article from Denver Post:
Colorado Supreme Court: Judge abused discretion by ordering new trial in deadly Erie plane crash case
When Weld County District Judge Todd Taylor ruled in 2016 that a jury erred in finding neither pilot at fault, he himself was in error, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
Judge Taylor overstepped his bounds by declaring that a jury’s verdict was a “miscarriage of justice” and ordering a new trial “solely because (he) disagrees with the jury’s verdict,” the ruling says. The Colorado Supreme Court sent the case back to district court for further proceedings in accord with their decision.
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision comes even though the National Transportation Safety Board placed full blame for the crash on pilot Oliver Frascona, 67. But the NTSB’s determination didn’t come until months after the civil trial in April of 2016.