WEISGRAM et al. v. MARLEY CO. et al.

Opinion of the Court


No. 99—161. Argued January 18, 2000–Decided February 22, 2000

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the respective authority of federal trial and appellate courts to decide whether, as a matter of law, judgment should be entered in favor of a verdict loser. The pattern we confront is this. Plaintiff in a product liability action gains a jury verdict. Defendant urges, unsuccessfully before the federal district court but successfully on appeal, that expert testimony plaintiff introduced was unreliable, and therefore inadmissible, under the analysis required by Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Shorn of the erroneously admitted expert testimony, the record evidence is insufficient to justify a plaintiff’s verdict. May the court of appeals then instruct the entry of judgment as a matter of law for defendant, or must that tribunal remand the case, leaving to the district court’s discretion the choice between final judgment for defendant or a new trial of plaintiff’s case?

Our decision is guided by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, which governs the entry of judgment as a matter of law, and by the Court’s pathmarking opinion in Neely v. Martin K. Eby Construction Co., 386 U.S. 317 (1967). As Neely teaches, courts of appeals should “be constantly alert” to “the trial judge’s first-hand knowledge of witnesses, testimony, and issues”; in other words, appellate courts should give due consideration to the first-instance decisionmaker’s “ ‘feel’ for the overall case.” Id., at 325. But the court of appeals has authority to render the final decision. If, in the particular case, the appellate tribunal determines that the district court is better positioned to decide whether a new trial, rather than judgment for defendant, should be ordered, the court of appeals should return the case to the trial court for such an assessment. But if, as in the instant case, the court of appeals concludes that further proceedings are unwarranted because the loser on 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 district court to enter judgment against the jury-verdict winner. 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.


Firefighters arrived at the home of Bonnie Weisgram on December 30, 1993, to discover flames around the front entrance. Upon entering the home, they found Weisgram in an upstairs bathroom, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Her son, petitioner Chad Weisgram, individually and on behalf of Bonnie Weisgram’s heirs, brought a diversity action in the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota seeking wrongful death damages. He alleged that a defect in an electric baseboard heater, manufactured by defendant (now respondent) Marley Company and located inside the door to Bonnie Weisgram’s home, caused both the fire and his mother’s death.1

At trial, Weisgram introduced the testimony of three witnesses, proffered as experts, in an endeavor to prove the alleged defect in the heater and its causal connection to the fire. The District Court overruled defendant Marley’s objections, lodged both before and during the trial, that this testimony was unreliable and therefore inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 as elucidated by Daubert. At the close of Weisgram’s evidence, and again at the close of all the evidence, Marley unsuccessfully moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of proof on the issues of defect and causation. The jury returned a verdict for Weisgram. Marley again requested judgment as a matter of law, and additionally requested, in the alternative, a new trial, pursuant to Rules 50 and 59; among arguments in support of its post-trial motions, Marley reasserted that the expert testimony essential to prove Weisgram’s case was unreliable and therefore inadmissible. App. 123—125. The District Court denied the motions and entered judgment for Weisgram. App. to Pet. for Cert. A28—A40. Marley appealed.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that Marley’s motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted. 169 F.3d 514, 517 (1999). Writing for the panel majority, Chief Judge Bowman first examined the testimony of Weisgram’s expert witnesses, the sole evidence supporting plaintiffs’ product defect charge. Id., at 518—522. Concluding that the testimony was speculative and not shown to be scientifically sound, the majority held the expert evidence incompetent to prove Weisgram’s case. Ibid. The court then considered the remaining evidence in the light most favorable to Weisgram, found it insufficient to support the jury verdict, and directed judgment as a matter of law for Marley. Id., at 516—517, 521—522. In a footnote, the majority “reject[ed] any contention that [it was] required to remand for a new trial.” Id., at 517, n. 2. It recognized its discretion to do so under Rule 50(d), but stated: “[W]e can discern no reason to give the plaintiffs a second chance to make out a case of strict liability . . . . This is not a close case. The plaintiffs had a fair opportunity to prove their claim and they failed to do so.” Ibid. (internal citations omitted). The dissenting judge disagreed on both points, concluding that the expert evidence was properly admitted and that the appropriate remedy for improper admission of expert testimony is the award of a new trial, not judgment as a matter of law. Id., at 522, 525 (citing Midcontinent Broadcasting Co. v. North Central Airlines, Inc., 471 F.2d 357 (CA8 1973)).

Courts of appeals have divided on the question whether Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 permits an appellate court to direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law when it determines that evidence was erroneously admitted at trial and that the remaining, properly admitted evidence is insufficient to constitute a submissible case.2 We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict, 527 U.S. 1069 (1999),3 and we now affirm the Eighth Circuit’s judgment.  Next Page ->

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