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Jones v. The City of San Antonio

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

August 30, 2017

CHERYL JONES, etc. et al.,Plaintiffs,
v.
THE CITY OF SAN ANTONIO,et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROYCE C. LAMBERTH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court is a motion for new trial pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, filed by plaintiff Cheryl Jones individually and as representative of the estate of Marquise Jones, Blake Lamkin, Whitney Jones, and Melkay Nation as representative and guardian of K.J., a minor. After consideration of the motion, the responses filed by defendant City of San Antonio and defendant Robert Encina, and plaintiffs' reply, and for the reasons articulated below, the Court will deny plaintiffs' motion for new trial.

         II. BACKGROUND

         In the early morning hours of February 28, 2014, Officer Robert Encina shot and killed Marquise Jones in the parking lot of Chachos and Chalucchis on Perrin Beitel Road in San Antonio, Texas. Plaintiffs sued defendants Encina and City of San Antonio for violation of Marquise Jones' civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, they alleged that Encina used excessive and deadly force that was unreasonable under the circumstances when he shot Marquise Jones because Jones posed no immediate threat and had not committed a crime at the time of the shooting. Plaintiffs also alleged that the City of San Antonio had an official policy or custom of failing to supervise or discipline officers and of covering up the use of excessive force in the San Antonio Police Department, which lead to Encina's allegedly unconstitutional use of force. They sought damages for wrongful death under the Texas Wrongful Death Statute, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem Code § 71.001, etseq., and survivorship under the Texas Survival Statute, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem Code §71.021.

         On March 27, 2017, this case went to trial. On April 6, 2017, the jury returned a verdict against the plaintiffs and in favor of defendants Encina and the City of San Antonio. The jury answered "no" in response to Question 1 of the verdict form:

Do you find that plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant Robert Encina used excessive and unnecessary deadly force, in violation of Marquis Jones' federal constitutional rights, pursuant to my instructions regarding COUNT I: EXCESSIVE AND DEADLY FORCE BY ROBERT ENCINA

ECF No. 327. Because the jury found that Encina did not use excessive force in violation of Marquise Jones' constitutional rights, the jury was not required to answer any of the subsequent questions. This Court ordered judgment entered in favor of the defendants. ECF No. 328.

         On May 5, 2017, plaintiffs filed a motion for new trial pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. ECF No. 333. Plaintiffs objected to the separation of Question 1 from subsequent Question 2:

Do you find from a preponderance of the evidence that no reasonable officer possessing knowledge of clearly established law and the information known by ROBERT ENCINA at that time, could have believed that the amount of force used against MARQUISE JONES was reasonable and necessary?

         Mot. 4, ECF No. 333. According to plaintiffs, the two questions improperly separate the elements of an excessive force claim. Id. That is, Question 1 asked whether plaintiff has suffered an injury resulting from the use of force that was excessive to the need, and Question 2 asked whether the excessiveness of the force was unreasonable.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         "The court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action of law in federal court." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a). Generally, a motion for new trial is granted when the trial court finds that (1) the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, (2) the amount of damages awarded is excessive, or (3) the trial was unfair or marred by prejudicial error. Seidman v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 923 F.2d 1134, 1140 (5th Cir. 1991) (quoting Smith v. Transworld Drilling Co., 773 F.2d 610, 612-13 (5th Cir. 1985)). On the issue of fairness, the Court has wide latitude in determining whether to grant or deny a motion for new trial. See Pryor v. Trane Co., 138 F.3d 1024, 1026 (5th Cir. 1998) (placing such a determination "within the sound discretion of the trial court").

         Similarly, the Court has the right to set aside a verdict if, after weighing the evidence, the Court is of the "firm belief that the verdict is clearly contrary to the weight of evidence." Smith, 113 F.2d at 612. The court need not view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. However, the Court must "respect the jury's collective wisdom and must not substitute its opinion for the jury's." Id. To avoid such substitutions, the Fifth Circuit has noted that "new trials should not be granted on evidentiary grounds unless, at a minimum, the verdict is against the great not merely the greater weight of the evidence." Conway v. Chemical Leaman Tank Lines, Inc.,610 F.2d 360, 362-63 ...


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