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Hensley v. Price

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

June 24, 2019

TERESA ANN HENSLEY, Administrator of the Estate of David Lee Hensley, HAILEY HENSLEY, and RACHELLE FERGUSON, Plaintiffs,
v.
SARALYNN PRICE, Administrator of the Estate of MICHAEL SCOTT PRICE, and KEITH ALLEN BEASLEY, individually, Defendants.

          ORDER

          MARTIN REIDINGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiffs' “Motion Pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for a Judgment Not Withstanding the Verdict or in the Alternitive [sic] for a New Trial, Rule 50(b)” [Doc. 110].

         I. BACKGROUND

         Deputies Michael Price and Keith Beasley (collectively, the “Defendants”[1]), both employees of the Haywood County, North Carolina, Sheriff's Department, shot and killed David Hensley (“the decedent”) outside his home on the morning of August 9, 2012. The Plaintiffs - the decedent's widow and his two daughters -- brought suit against the Defendants in both their individual and official capacities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and North Carolina law. After the Defendants' motion for qualified immunity was denied [see Doc. 57], this case proceeded to a jury trial. On September 20, 2018, the jury returned a special verdict, finding that the Defendants' actions were objectively reasonable. [Doc. 107]. Based on the jury's factual findings, the Court entered a Judgment in favor of the Defendants with respect to all the Plaintiffs' claims. [Doc. 108].

         The Plaintiffs now move for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, alternatively, for a new trial. [Doc. 110]. The Defendants oppose the Plaintiffs' motion. [Doc. 112].

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a party may move for judgment as a matter of law if the non-moving party “has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the [non-moving] party on that issue….” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). A motion for judgment as a matter of law may be made at any time prior to the submission of the case to the jury. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(2). A party may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law within 28 days after the entry of judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b).

         A party's failure to move for judgment as a matter of law at trial generally precludes any post-verdict motion under Rule 50(b). See Price v. City of Charlotte, 93 F.3d 1241, 1249 (4th Cir. 1996) (“[A] Rule 50(a) motion is a prerequisite to a Rule 50(b) motion because the [moving party] must apprise the district court of the alleged insufficiency of [the non-moving party's] suit before the case is submitted to the jury.”); Gilreath v. Cumberland Cty. Bd. of Educ., 304 F.R.D. 481, 483 (E.D. N.C. 2015) (“Generally, a plaintiff cannot renew a Rule 50 motion that was never made.”), aff'd, 627 Fed.Appx. 271 (4th Cir. 2016). Absent a showing of plain error or manifest injustice, the Court will not review the sufficiency of the evidence under Rule 50(b) “because implicit in the [Plaintiffs'] failure to move for judgment as a matter of law is the belief that the evidence created a jury issue, and the [Plaintiffs] should not be permitted on appeal to impute error to the trial judge for sharing that view.” Price, 93 F.3d at 1249 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Here, the Plaintiffs never moved for relief under Rule 50(a) prior to submission of the case to the jury. Thus, they are precluded from asserting a Rule 50(b) motion at this stage of the proceedings unless they can demonstrate that plain error or manifest injustice would result if the sufficiency of the evidence were not reviewed. The Plaintiffs' argument fails in both respects. The Plaintiffs concede that both Defendants testified that the decedent pointed a gun at Deputy Beasley at the time of the shooting. That evidence alone is sufficient to support the jury's verdict and to defeat the Plaintiffs' motion for judgment as a matter of law. In the broader context of all the evidence, the decedent first pointed his gun at Deputy Beasley when the decedent initially exited the home; the decedent then hit his daughter Rachelle in the head with the gun when his daughters tried to take the gun away from him; thereafter the decedent pointed his long-nose revolver at Beasley a second time from a close distance, which resulted in the decedent being shot. In short, there was ample evidence presented to support the jury's conclusion that the Defendants' use of deadly force was objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.[2]

         For all these reasons, the Plaintiffs' motion for a judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is denied.

         B. Rule 59 Motion

          Under Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court may set aside a verdict and grant a new trial if the Court is of the opinion that the verdict (1) “is against the clear weight of the evidence”; (2) “is based upon evidence which is false”; or (3) “will result in a miscarriage of justice, even though there may be substantial evidence which would prevent the direction of a verdict.” Atlas Food Sys. and Servs., Inc. v. Crane Nat'l Vendors, Inc., 99 F.3d 587, 594 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Yeatts, 122 F.2d 350, 352-53 (4th Cir. 1941)); Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1) (stating that court may set aside jury verdict “for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court”). In reviewing a motion for new trial, the Court is permitted to weigh the evidence and consider the credibility of the witnesses. Cline v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 294, 301 (4th Cir. 1998). The decision to grant or deny a new trial is a matter within the Court's sound discretion. See id.

         While the Plaintiffs' Motion is not a model of clarity, the Plaintiffs appear to contend that a new trial is warranted because the jury's verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence and was based upon ...


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