Directed Verdicts

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.


Directed Verdicts.—In 1913, in Slocum v. New York Life Ins. Co.,65 the Court held that a federal appeals court lacked authority to order the entry of a judgment contrary to the verdict in a case in which the federal trial court should have directed a verdict for one party, but the jury had found for the other party contrary to the evidence; the only course open to either court was to order a new trial. Although plainly in accordance with the common law as it stood in 1791, the five-to-four decision was subjected to a heavy barrage of professional criticism based on convenience and urging recognition of capacity for growth in the common law.66 Slocum was then impaired, if not completely undermined, by subsequent holdings.67

In the first of these cases, the Court held that a trial court had the right to enter a judgment for the plaintiff on the verdict of the jury after having reserved decision on a motion by the defendant for dismissal on the ground of insufficient evidence.68 The Court distinguished Slocum and noted that its ruling qualified some of its assertions in Slocum.69 In the second case70 the Court sustained a United States district court in rejecting the defendant’s motion for dismissal and in peremptorily directing a verdict for the plaintiff. The Supreme Court held that there was ample evidence to support the verdict and that the trial court, in following Arkansas procedure in the diversity action, had acted consistently with the Federal Conformity Act.71 In the third case,72 which involved an action against the government for benefits under a war risk insurance policy that had been allowed to lapse, the trial court directed a verdict for the government on the ground of the insufficiency of the evidence, and was sustained in so doing by both the appeals court and the Supreme Court. Justice Black, joined by Justices Douglas and Murphy asserted in dissent, “Today’s decision marks a continuation of the gradual process of judicial erosion which in one-hundred-fifty years has slowly worn away a major portion of the essential guarantee of the Seventh Amendment.”73 That the Court should experience occasional difficulty in harmonizing the idea of preserving the historic common law covering the relations of judge and jury with the notion of a developing common law is not surprising.74

65 228 U.S. 364 (1913).

66 F. James, Civil Procedure 332–33 & n.8 (1965).

67 But see Hetzel v. Prince William County, 523 U.S. 208 (1998) (when an appeals court affirms liability but orders the level of damages to be reconsidered, the plaintiff has a Seventh Amendment right either to accept the reduced award or to have a new trial).

68 Baltimore & Carolina Line v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654 (1935).

69 295 U.S. at 661. The Court’s opinions in both Redman and Slocum were by Justice Van Devanter.

70 Lyon v. Mutual Benefit Ass’n, 305 U.S. 484 (1939).

71 Ch. 255, § 5, 17 Stat. 197 (1872), now superseded by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

72 Galloway v. United States, 319 U.S. 372, 389 (1943), in which the Court wrote, “the practice has been approved explicitly in the promulgation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,” citing Berry v. United States, 312 U.S. 450 (1941). In the latter case the Court remarked that the new rule has given “district judges, under certain circumstances, . . . the right (but not the mandatory duty) to enter a judgment contrary to the jury’s verdict without granting a new trial. But that rule has not taken away from juries and given to judges any part of the exclusive power of juries to weigh evidence and determine contested issues of facts—a jury being the constitutional tribunal provided for trying facts in courts of law.” Id. at 452–53.

73 319 U.S. 372, 397. The case, being a claim against the United States, need not have been tried by a jury except for the allowance of Congress.

74 See, e.g., Neely v. Martin K. Eby Construction Co., Inc., 386 U.S. 317 (1967), interpreting Rules 50(b), 50(c)(2) and 50(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as the Seventh Amendment.

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