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New Trial Not Always Automatic

February 22, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ People who win a lawsuit only to see their victory thrown out on appeal because of improper expert testimony are not always entitled to a new trial to prove their case, the Supreme Court ruled today.

Federal appeals courts can bar such people from presenting their claims in a new trial, the justices ruled unanimously in the North Dakota case of a woman who died in a house fire.

The ruling resolves a deep split among federal appeals courts on that point.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that procedural rules for federal courts give appellate judges such discretion.

``If ... the court of appeals concludes that further proceedings are unwarranted because of the loser of the appeal has had a full and fair opportunity to present the case, including arguments for a new trial, the appellate court may appropriately instruct the (trial judge) to enter judgment against the jury-verdict winner,″ Ginsburg said.

Today’s ruling upheld a federal appeals court ruling that barred a new trial in a wrongful-death case filed by the son of Bonnie Weisgram, who died in a 1993 fire at her home in Fargo, N.D.

Her son, Chad Weisgram, sued the manufacturer of an electric baseboard in his mother’s home, blaming the blaze on an alleged defect in the heater’s thermostat. A jury awarded him $500,000 from the manufacturer, the Marley Co.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the verdict in February 1999 and granted judgment to Marley, barring a new trial in the case.

The appeals court said the trial judge should not have allowed three expert witnesses, presented by Weisgram’s lawyers, to testify about alleged defects in the heater.

Without that testimony, Chad Weisgram could not prove his case, the appeals court concluded in granting judgment to Marley Co.

In the Supreme Court, Weisgram’s lawyers argued that when a trial verdict is thrown out because expert testimony was erroneously admitted, those who sued should automatically be given a new trial to prove their case.

Weisgram’s lawyers could have submitted other evidence in a new trial, the appeal said, adding that the appeals court should not have assumed he would not be able to prove the heater was defective.

Weisgram’s lawyers also argued that if the Supreme Court decided he was not automatically entitled to a new trial, the decision on whether to have a new trial should be made by the trial judge rather than the appeals court.

Today, the Supreme Court disagreed.

``Appellate authority to make this determination is no less when the evidence is rendered insufficient by the removal of erroneously admitted testimony than it is when the evidence, without any deletion, is insufficient,″ Ginsburg said.

The case is Weisgram vs. Marley, 99-161.

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