On February 13, 2012, Jeremy Tyler wrote South Florida Juries Reach Different Conclusions In Late Notice Hurricane Cases, which discussed two recent hurricane cases that went to trial in South Florida courts. Following a verdict and judgment entered in a case, parties can seek review of the judgment by appeal. After a case proceeds through trial, the appellate court’s standard of review, or deference to the findings of fact and legal decisions at trial, can determine the outcome of an appeal.

The following are appellate standards of review:

  • De Novo. The court gives no deference to the lower court’s legal decisions and considers the legal decisions independently;
  • Clearly Erroneous. Review under the clearly erroneous standard is significantly deferential. The appellate court must accept the trial court’s findings of fact unless it is left with the “definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Inwood Laboratories, Inc. v. Ives Laboratories, Inc., 456 U.S. 844, 855 (1982);
  • Substantial Evidence. Review under this standard means a decision will be upheld as long as there is competent and substantial evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a verdict. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971);
  • Abuse of Discretion. Under this standard, the appellate court will affirm unless it determines that the trial court has made a clear error of judgment or has applied an incorrect legal standard.

Generally speaking, appellate courts draw an important distinction between the review of factual issues and the review of legal issues. Conclusions of law receive de novo review, while findings of fact are typically reviewed under the more deferential standards. In Hudson Pulp & Paper Corporation v. Butler & Company, a Florida appellate court explained how it reviews a jury verdict.

In our review of the record we have given due consideration to the applicable appellate principle that a judgment of the trial court reaches the appellate court clothed with a presumption of correctness. Our review of the record reveals that although the testimony is conflicting, there is substantial evidence to support the jury’s verdict and judgment thereon. It is not the province of this court to substitute its judgment for that of the trier of the facts. These findings will not be disturbed in the absence of a clear showing that the trial court committed error or that the evidence demonstrates that the conclusions reached are erroneous.

In Workmen’s Mut. Ins. Co. v. Bella Vista Hotel Apartments, Inc., 399 F.2d 693 (11th Cir. 1968), a claim for damages caused by Hurricane Betsy went to trial before a jury, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the policyholder. The insurer appealed, arguing that the loss was excluded by the policy terms. The jury was instructed to consider the policy exclusions the insurer cited the denial. The appellate court held:

It was not unreasonable for the jury to find that the damages suffered were caused by wind and not by the excluded causes. There was evidence from which the jury could make this finding.

A party has a difficult standard to meet on appeal if the sole basis for appellate review is that the jury verdict and final judgment entered were in error, as jury verdicts are usually given great deference. A different standard of review should apply if a party argues on appeal that the jury instructions were inappropriate or that there were other legal errors before, during or after a trial. Issues of law are more open for review and interpretation.

Because today is Presidents’ Day, it seems fitting to end with a quote from Thomas Jefferson regarding the importance of trial by jury:

I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.