Baufield v. Safelite Glass Corp.

Citation831 F. Supp. 713
Decision Date10 May 1993
Docket NumberCiv. No. 3-91-214.
PartiesKurt BAUFIELD, Plaintiff, v. SAFELITE GLASS CORPORATION, Defendant.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota


Lawrence R. Altman, Schermer & Altman, Minneapolis, MN, for plaintiff.

Richard A. Ross, Mary M. Krakow, and Kimberly J. Nordby, Fredrikson & Byron, Minneapolis, MN, for defendant.


KYLE, District Judge.


The above-entitled action came on for trial before the undersigned and a jury between March 8 and March 12, 1993.1 On March 15, 1993, the jury returned a verdict finding that defendant Safelite Glass Corporation ("Safelite") terminated plaintiff Kurt Baufield in violation of Minn.Stat. § 181.932 (1990) (the "Whistleblower Act"), and was liable for defamation. By its order dated March 16, 1993, this Court concluded that Safelite had engaged in reprisal discrimination against Baufield in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Minn.Stat. § 363.03, subd. 7 ("MHRA").2 As damages, the jury awarded Baufield the sum of $201,000 for Safelite's violation of the Whistleblower Act and $50,000 for defamation. In its March 16, 1993 order, the Court held that the jury's award of damages for Safelite's violation of the Whistleblower Act precluded Baufield from recovering additional damages for Safelite's violation of MHRA.

Now before the Court are (1) Safelite's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law Following a Jury Verdict or Alternatively, A New Trial, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), 59(a), and (2) Baufield's Post-Trial Motions for an Order (a) awarding prejudgment interest, (b) multiplying the damages award, and (c) granting his application for costs and attorney's fees.

I. Safelite's Post-Trial Motions
A. Motion for Judgment As a Matter of Law

The entry of judgment as a matter of law is governed by Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 50 permits a party to move the court, during a trial by jury, for a judgment as a matter of law.3 A motion for judgment may be granted as a matter of law where "a party has been fully heard with respect to an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to have found for that party with respect to that issue." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). Where a motion for judgment is for any reason not granted, the court is deemed to submit the action to the jury subject to a later determination of the legal questions raised by the motion and the party seeking judgment as a matter of law may renew the motion not later than ten (10) days after entry of judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b).

Following a jury verdict, judgment as a matter of law is proper only when a reasonable jury could not have reached the result on the evidence presented. See Western American, Inc. v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 915 F.2d 1181, 1183 (8th Cir.1990); City of Omaha Employees Betterment Ass'n v. Omaha, 883 F.2d 650, 651 (8th Cir.1989). The standard that must be met before a jury's verdict may be set aside is a "rigorous" one, Western American, 915 F.2d at 1183, and the court must deny the motion if reasonable persons could differ as to the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence. Id.

In passing on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court must (1) consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, (2) assume that all conflicts in the evidence were resolved in favor of the prevailing party, (3) assume as proved all facts that the prevailing party's evidence tended to prove, and (4) give the prevailing party the benefit of all favorable inferences that may reasonably be drawn from the facts proved. Id. (citing Gilkerson v. Toastmaster, Inc., 770 F.2d 133, 136 (8th Cir.1985)). The court, however, is not to accord the prevailing party "the benefit of unreasonable inferences," Marcoux v. Van Wyk, 572 F.2d 651, 653 (8th Cir.1978), cert. dismissed, 439 U.S. 801, 99 S.Ct. 43, 58 L.Ed.2d 94 (1978), nor may it deny a motion where the verdict is supported by a "mere scintilla" of evidence or by mere "speculation." City of Omaha, 883 F.2d at 651-52.

Having scrutinized Safelite's contentions in support of its motion and the evidence presented at trial, the Court concludes that Baufield introduced sufficient evidence to support his defamation and Whistleblower Act claims.4 Assuming as true all facts supporing Baufield which the evidence tended to prove, and giving him the benefit of all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the facts proved, Baufield presented evidence establishing each of the essential elements of those claims. The issues involved in this case demanded that the fact finder weigh the credibility of witnesses and balance conflicting evidence concerning the parties' actions. Safelite's versions of the facts were presented at trial and again in support of the instant motions, yet its view was met by Baufield's evidence. Accordingly, it was for the jury to assess the evidence and reach a verdict.5

The Court further concludes that Safelite's argument concerning Baufield's defamation claim is not supported by Minnesota's law of defamation. A statement is defamatory if it tends to harm the plaintiff's reputation or lower him in the estimation of the community. Whether a plaintiff was in fact harmed by defamatory statements becomes essential to a claim of defamation only if the alleged defamatory statement is not defamatory per se. If a statement is defamatory per se, harm is presumed.

A statement is defamatory per se if it imputes serious sexual misconduct to the subject of the statement. See Anderson v. Kammeier, 262 N.W.2d 366, 372 (Minn.1977); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 574. Baufield presented evidence from which a jury could find that the Ricely's statements imputed serious sexual misconduct to Baufield. Accordingly, Baufield's defamation claim was not dependent on showing that his reputation was actually harmed.

B. Motion for New Trial

In a motion for a new trial, the court's primary purpose is to prevent the verdict from working an injustice. Leichihman v. Pickwick, Int'l, 814 F.2d 1263, 1266 (8th Cir.) ("Pickwick II"), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 855, 108 S.Ct. 161, 98 L.Ed.2d 116 (1987), aff'g 589 F.Supp. 831 (D.Minn.1984) ("Pickwick I"). In other words, "the court must be motivated by more than the fact that it would have come to a different conclusion had it been the trier of fact. The court must feel that the jury reached a seriously erroneous result in spite of the clear weight of the evidence." Id. (quoting Pickwick I, 589 F.Supp. at 834 (citation omitted)). Accordingly, the standard is whether the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. Pickwick II, 814 F.2d at 1267. In assessing a new trial motion, the court may consider all the evidence adduced at trial and weigh that evidence for itself. Id. at 1266.

Safelite's motion for a new trial has three components. First, as to each of Baufield's three claims, Safelite contends that the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence.6 The Court cannot agree. The standard of review is not whether the court or counsel would have reached a different conclusion; rather, the question is whether the jury's verdict has a basis in the evidentiary record. The Court concludes that the jury's findings with respect to Baufield's defamation and Whistleblower Act claims are amply supported by the evidence and will not be disturbed. The Court further concludes that Safelite has not shown that the Court should either reopen the judgment or grant a new trial on Baufield's MHRA claim. See Fed. R.Civ.P. 59(a). Finally, the Court notes that the jury's advisory verdict on Baufield's MHRA claim supports the Court's ultimate findings on that claim. See Pickwick I, 589 F.Supp. at 834.

Second, Safelite contends that the Court's refusal to instruct the jury that "a communication cannot be defamatory if it was first communicated by the party that is the subject of the communication," was an error of law warranting a new trial. This statement was not part of Safelite's proposed injury instructions; rather, it was a statement in Safelite's trial memorandum. The Court initially included the preceding statement in a draft of its Instructions of Law which were circulated to counsel prior to the charge conference. Thereafter, the Court determined, over Safelite's objection, that the statement was not supported by governing law and would not be included in its Instructions.

A new trial may be appropriate under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59 if the court erred in instructing the jury as to the applicable law. Aderans Co. v. Jablonski, 787 F.Supp. 882, 885 (D.Minn.1992). In the present case, Safelite has not shown that the Court's refusal to give the requested instruction presented the jury with an erroneous view of the law of defamation.

Third, Safelite contends that Baufield's counsel's closing arguments improperly appealed to the jury's passion and sympathy and were so prejudicial that its right to a fair trial was violated. In support of this ground, Safelite points to the fact that during his closing argument Baufield's counsel (1) referred to Safelite as, among other things, the "Mafia" and a "corporate goon squad," (2) opined that the Safelite executive who terminated Baufield, Thomas Lopienski, did not appear at trial because Baufield's termination was not important enough, and (3) referred to the damages allegedly suffered by Baufield's father and wife.

Notwithstanding Safelite's concession that it did not object to any of the statements now complained of, (Def's Mem.Supp. New Trial, at 18 n. 5), a new trial would be warranted if the statements Safelite identifies were "plainly unwarranted and clearly injurious." Vanskike v. Union Pac. R. Co., 725 F.2d 1146, 1149 (8th Cir.1984); Pearce v. Cornerstone Clinic For Women, 938 F.2d 855, 859 (8th Cir.1991); see McWhorter v. City of Birmingham, 906 F.2d 674, 677-78 (11th Cir. 1990) (holding that...

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