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Mejias-Aguayo v. Doreste-Rodriguez

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

July 12, 2017

JOSE A. MEJIAS-AGUAYO; RAMON LUIS MEJIAS-NIEVES; JOSE ANTONIO MEJIAS-NIEVES, Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
JUAN DORESTE-RODRIGUEZ; UNIVERSAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendants, Appellees.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Marcos E. López, Magistrate Judge]

          José Luis Ubarri, Esq., David W. Román, Esq., and Ubarri & Román Law Office on brief for appellants.

          José Hector Vivas, Pedro Jamie Lopez-Bergollo, José M. Martinez Chevres, Vivas & Vivas, and Andreu & Sagardia on brief for appellees.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge. Lipez and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          HOWARD, Chief Judge.

         Following an unfortunate car accident, injured pedestrian José Mejías-Aguayo filed a negligence action against the vehicle's driver Juan Doreste-Rodríguez and Doreste's insurance company Universal Insurance Company ("Universal"). After a four-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. Mejías then filed a motion for a new trial, which the district court denied.[1] Mejías now appeals this denial, maintaining that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence and that certain statements by defense counsel and erroneous jury instructions warrant a new trial. Finding insufficient merit to his challenges, we affirm.

         I.

         In January 2013, Mejías was on his way to a Banco Popular branch in Isabela, Puerto Rico. As he crossed Agustín Ramos Calero Avenue, a two-way street -- though not, he concedes, at a designated crosswalk -- Doreste's car struck him, and he suffered significant injuries. Mejías subsequently filed a state-law negligence action in federal district court, invoking diversity jurisdiction.

         At trial, Mejías testified that he was hit "just as he lifted his foot to step onto the sidewalk" leading to the bank. Miguel Arroyo, Mejías's witness at trial, testified that at the time of the accident he was parked at a nearby stop sign, and saw Mejías's body fly about two feet into the air and land four to five feet from the front bumper of Doreste's car. Photographs taken by the insurance company showed damage to the front passenger-side bumper.

         Doreste, by contrast, maintained that the accident occurred not near the sidewalk, but closer to the center of the road. Doreste testified that, as he was driving, Mejías --initially shielded from view by a large SUV driving in the opposite direction -- suddenly appeared in front of his vehicle. Doreste immediately applied the brakes, but nevertheless struck Mejías. Doreste testified that he was not on the phone, had not been drinking, and obeyed all traffic laws. He also asserted that the damage to the passenger-side front bumper of his car, indicated in the insurance company photo, was the result of an earlier accident, and that it was actually the middle of his front bumper that struck Mejías, closer to the driver's side.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of Doreste, finding that Mejías failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Doreste was negligent in his driving and that his negligence proximately caused damage to Mejías. The court entered judgment consistent with the verdict. Mejías filed a motion for a new trial, which the district court denied. This timely appeal of that denial followed.

         II.

         A trial court may, on motion, grant a new trial in limited circumstances. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1). "A new trial may be warranted if 'the verdict is against the weight of the evidence' or if 'the action is required in order to prevent injustice.'" Jones ex rel. U.S. v. Mass. Gen. Hosp., 780 F.3d 479, 492 (1st Cir. 2015) (quoting Jennings v. Jones, 587 F.3d 430, 436 (1st Cir. 2009)). We review a district court's denial of a motion for a new trial for abuse of discretion. Id.

         On appeal, Mejías repeats the arguments set forth in his motion for a new trial before the district court, arguing that: 1) the verdict was against the weight of the evidence; 2) defense counsel made improper comments at closing argument that were not remedied by the court's curative ...


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