The Jury’s Verdict Is In! Now What?
by Dan Tobin
In litigation, preparing for and finishing a jury trial is exhausting but rewarding. Unfortunately, the law does not allow the attorney to kick back and relax once the trial concludes. Whereas pre-trial procedure affords ample time to prepare for the trial, post-trial procedure requires immediate action. Issues relating to preservation of error, contingent deadlines, and strategic considerations, among others, must be addressed in the immediate aftermath of the verdict. Most attorneys will anticipate these issues before the trial ends, including consulting with an appellate attorney. Nonetheless, one false step after the jury’s verdict is announced and before an appeal is filed can jeopardize all of the work that went into preparing for trial.
The process begins with the entry of the judgment, which triggers the post-judgment motion, plenary power, and appellate deadlines. It allows the prevailing party to start enforcement action. It starts additional procedural maneuvering. For instance, the losing party may delay entry of the judgment to avoid enforcement or provide more time to setup its post-trial plan.
Getting to Final Judgment
To get the post-trial ball rolling, a motion for the entry of judgment is available. Should the prevailing party make such a motion, for example if it wants to commence enforcement, it must ensure that its motion contains all of the relief that was awarded at trial. If the losing party files the motion for entry of judgment, for example if it wants to speed up the post-judgment process to take advantage of an error at trial, it must include qualifying or conditioning language to avoid waiving its appellate arguments.
If either party is dissatisfied with the jury’s verdict, it should file a motion to disregard or a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“jnov”). A motion to disregard asks the court to ignore one or more of the jury’s findings and enter the judgment based on the jury’s other findings. A motion for judgment notwithstanding seeks a judgment contrary to all the jury’s answers. The grounds typically are that there is no evidence to support or that the conclusive evidence is contrary to, a jury’s findings. Interestingly, the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure do not contain a deadline to file these motions. Strategically, it is more effective to ask a court to ignore a jury’s findings before that same court enters judgment. At the very least, out of an abundance of caution, the motion should be filed within 30 days of the entry of the judgment. If it is, the appellate deadline extends to 90 days after the judgment is signed and the error as to legal sufficiency of the evidence is preserved.
Once a judgment is entered, a party has 30 days to file a post-judgment motion or file its appeal. Because public policy is to allow courts an opportunity to correct any errors that occurred at trial, the best place to start is the motion for a new trial. A motion for new trial is required to preserve most errors. While there are a multitude of grounds upon which to seek a new trial, the trial courts have broad discretion to grant a new trial, much more than an appellate court, including the catch all reason of ‘good cause.’ A motion for a new trial extends the appellate deadline to 90 days after the judgment is signed. The court’s plenary power is extended to 30 days after the motion is overruled by written order or by operation of law, which will occur automatically 75 days after the judgment is signed.
An alternative to asking for a new trial is moving to modify, correct or reform the judgment. This can be the post-judgment version of the motion to disregard or the motion for “jnov.” If a substantive change is sought, the appellate deadline extends to 90 days after the original judgment is signed or 30 days from the date the new judgment is signed. The court’s plenary power extends to 75 days after the signing of the judgment.
Of course, after the judgment is signed, a party can bypass the post-judgment motions and proceed directly to appeal, but this can be fraught with peril. Most notably, it risks failing to preserve important trial errors and puts the parties on a faster track to brief and argue their appeals. There are other pleadings available than those discussed above, but this article assumes a jury trial on the merits and does not discuss clerical or administrative errors or a bill of review.
Dan Tobin is a shareholder at SettlePou and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.