Often, I am contacted by someone who has lost his or her case in the trial court. “I can’t believe the jury believed the other side,” or “I can’t believe the trial judge ruled that way,” are sentiments regularly expressed by frustrated litigants.
Frequently underlying those sentiments is the assumption that the Court of Appeal will start with a clean slate and provide a second chance, a so-called “do over.” That assumption often is wrong.
Unlike the trial court, which searches for truth, the Court of Appeal searches for error. The appellate court will overturn a trial court’s decision only if the trial court made a mistake serious enough that the outcome probably would have been different absent the mistake. But whether a mistake falls into this category depends on the type of mistake that the trial court makes.
Misinterpreting the Law
One type of serious mistake involves the trial court misinterpreting the law. If the trial court has incorrectly interpreted a statute, a constitutional provision, or case law, often it will lead to the Court of Appeal reversing the decision. In these types of cases, the Court of Appeal conducts an independent review of the issue without giving any deference to the trial court’s decision.
Verdict That is Not Supported by Substantial Evidence
Another type of mistake is the trial judge, or the jury, reaching a decision or verdict that is not supported by substantial evidence in the trial court record. If there is little or no evidence supporting the decision or verdict, the Court of Appeal will probably reverse the judgment. But it is somewhat unusual for trial judges and juries to reach decisions that are not supported by at least some credible evidence. Thus, appeals that are based on an asserted lack of substantial evidence are more difficult to win than those based on misinterpretations of the law.
Trial Court Has Abused its Discretion
A third type of mistake involves issues over which trial courts enjoy broad discretion. For example, parties frequently ask for more time to submit legal briefs or documents to the trial court. The trial court has broad discretion to grant or deny these requests. If a litigant believes that the trial court’s decision here has hurt his or her case, the Court of Appeal will overturn that decision only if the trial court has abused its discretion—in other words, if the trial court has made a decision that goes beyond the bounds of reasonableness. This will largely depend on the particular circumstances of the case.
The above types of mistakes are not the only ones that might creep into the trial court proceedings, but they are the most common. Before you decide whether to file an appeal, it is a good idea to ask an appellate lawyer what type of mistake he or she believes the trial court might have made. The answer could make the difference in whether you are able to show an error serious enough to reverse the judgment.