National Hispanic Circus v. Rex Trucking, Inc., 04-41217.

Decision Date23 June 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-41217.,04-41217.
Citation414 F.3d 546
PartiesThe NATIONAL HISPANIC CIRCUS, INC., A New York not-for-profit Corporation, Plaintiff-Counter Defendant-Appellee, v. REX TRUCKING, INC., etc.; et al., Defendants, Mason & Dixon Lines, Inc., Defendant-Counter Claimant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Stephen Jeffrey Chapman (argued), Barker, Leon, Fancher & Matthys, Corpus Christi, TX, for Plaintiff.

Jonathan F. Ball (argued), Paul David Keenan, Janssen, Keenan & Ciardi, Philadelphia, PA, for Defendant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before WIENER, DeMOSS, and PRADO, Circuit Judges.

WIENER, Circuit Judge:

Defendant—Counter ClaimantAppellant Mason & Dixon Lines, Inc. ("Mason") challenges a jury verdict and damages awarded in favor of Plaintiff-Counter Defendant-Appellee the National Hispanic Circus (the "Circus"). We affirm.

This dispute arises out of a missing set of circus bleachers, lost somewhere between Texas and Chicago while in the care of Mason. The Circus regularly employed Mason's trucks and drivers to transport its equipment from one show to the next. On this occasion, however, one of seven trailers—the one carrying half of the Circus's bleachers—never made it to the Chicago show. Consequently, the Circus was forced to rent replacement bleachers which provided approximately 600-700 fewer seats than its own bleachers. Several weeks later, the Circus ordered replacement bleachers, which had to be custom-made in Italy to fit its tent. The cost of the replacement bleachers was $87,500.00, which the Circus was forced to pay in advance. The shipping cost was $36,104.00. (Approximately three months after its disappearance, the Circus's trailer containing its original bleachers was discovered in Arkansas.)

The Circus brought suit under the Carmack Amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act, 49 U.S.C. § 14706 et seq., against Mason and Rex Trucking1 for damages it suffered as a result of the lost trailer. Mason asserted a counterclaim for the balance of the Circus's freight charges for the trailers Mason did deliver timely to Chicago.

At the completion of the trial, the jury awarded the Circus damages of $9,000 for rental of replacement bleachers, $123,000 for the purchase and shipping of the new bleachers, and $16,500 for lost ticket sales. It awarded Mason $15,600 on its counter-claim for payment for timely delivery of the six other trailers. Mason then renewed an earlier motion for judgment as a matter of law and moved alternatively for a new trial. The district court struck the award for lost ticket sales as too speculative and offset the rest of the Circus's award by the amount of Mason's award, thus granting total damages to the Circus of $116,400, including pre- and post-judgment interest, but upheld all other aspects of the jury's verdict and its own rulings. Mason appeals the district court's denial of its motions for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial, as well as one of the district court's evidentiary rulings and its calculation of damages.

1. General v. Special Damages

We review de novo a district court's denial of a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law.2 Under this standard, judgment as a matter of law "is appropriate only where there is no legally sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to find for [a] party."3 Although our review is de novo, we accord great deference to a jury verdict, evaluating the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and reversing only if "the evidence at trial points so strongly and overwhelmingly in the movant's favor that reasonable jurors could not reach a contrary conclusion."4

The Carmack Amendment allows a shipper to recover damages from a carrier for "actual loss or injury to the property" resulting from the transportation of cargo in interstate commerce.5 A carrier's liability under the Carmack Amendment includes all reasonably foreseeable damages resulting from the breach of its contract of carriage, "including those resulting from nondelivery of the shipped goods as provided by the bill of lading."6

Both general and special damages may be recovered under the Carmack Amendment.7 General damages are those that are foreseeable at the time of contracting.8 Special damages are those that result from a party's breach of contract but are not reasonably foreseeable. Special damages generally are not recoverable in a breach of contract action absent actual notice to the defendant of special circumstances from which such damages might arise.9

Mason argues that the district court erred by submitting the foreseeability of the Circus's damages to the jury rather than deciding as a matter of law that the Circus's damages were special rather than general. But, "[t]he question whether or not the defendant did in fact foresee, or had reason to foresee, the injury that the plaintiff has suffered is a question of fact for the jury."10

The jury heard evidence that Mason (actually Rex) had previously shipped the Circus's equipment, that Mason employees filled out the bills of lading without listing the trailer's contents, and that Mason knew that it was shipping a "wide variety" of the Circus's equipment. This evidence was sufficient to support the jury's finding that Mason should have foreseen the injury to the Circus.11

2. Jury Instructions; Denial of New Trial

As Mason objected to the district court's jury instructions at trial, our review is for abuse of discretion.12 A district court does not abuse its discretion if its instructions, as a whole, state the law correctly and instruct the jury properly on the legal principles to be applied to the facts that they will decide.13 Mason also appeals the district court's denial of its motion for a new trial based on what it terms inconsistent answers to the jury's interrogatories, a decision we review for abuse of discretion.14

Mason asserts that the district court improperly refused to craft an interrogatory that requested the jury to determine whether the damages being sought by the Circus were foreseeable in the absence of actual notice. Instead, the district court separated the inquiry into two interrogatories, asking the jury, first, to determine whether the listed injuries were reasonably foreseeable to Mason at the time of contracting. The jury was instructed that, if it answered in the negative, it should then determine whether Mason had actual notice of circumstances that could give rise to the Circus's injuries. Posing this inquiry as two separate questions neither mis-stated the law nor made it impossible to tell whether the jury awarded general or special damages.

Mason goes on to argue that the jury's verdict was inconsistent. Rather than awarding money damages after determining that the Circus's damages were reasonably foreseeable, the jury instead determined that Mason also had actual notice of the Circus's potential damages. Mason contends that this mistake requires a new trial, as the Circus presented no evidence showing that Mason had actual notice of the possibility of special damages; thus, it asserts, the jury's verdict may have rested on a theory that lacked adequate support in the record.15

Even if the jury's answers were inconsistent, — a highly implausible contention —16 a new trial still was not required if the verdict can be explained by assuming that the jury misunderstood the question.17 If the jury's answer to a question that was supposed to pretermit further inquiry is clear and disposes of the legal issues, we must ignore the jury's conflicting answers to any other questions, as they are irrelevant.18 As the jury's answer to the second question was superfluous to its finding that Mason could reasonably have foreseen the damages to the Circus, Mason is not entitled to a new trial or a judgment as a matter of law.19

3. Exclusion of Witness's Testimony Under Rule 701

We review a district court's decision to exclude evidence for abuse of discretion.20 If we find an abuse of discretion, we apply the harmless error rule to determine whether the error affected the substantial rights of the complaining party.21

Mason complains that a portion of the testimony of its corporate claims manager, Ralph Castile, was improperly excluded. Castile's job is, in large part, to sell at salvage cargo that has been refused by the consignee or damaged in transit. Castile was permitted to describe the process by which he conducts those sales and stated that he had been able to determine the market value of the bleachers. The district court nevertheless excluded Castile's opinion testimony on the re-sale value of the bleachers.

Under Rule 701, "[a] lay opinion must be based on personal perception, must be one that a normal person would form from those perceptions, and must be helpful to the [fact finder].'"22 "In particular, the witness must have personalized knowledge of the facts underlying the opinion and the opinion must have a rational connection to those facts."23 Rule 701 does not exclude testimony by corporate officers or business owners on matters that relate to their business affairs, such as industry practices and pricing.24

Castile was allowed to testify on matters relating to his own business experience, as permitted by Rule 701. The district court properly excluded his testimony on matters, including the re-sale value of used, custom-made bleachers, about which he had no first-hand knowledge or experience. The district court's ruling on Castile's testimony was an appropriate exercise of its discretion.

4. Calculation of Damages

We review legal conclusions underlying an award of damages de novo.25 If the district court committed no legal error, we review its factual findings for clear error.26

Mason insists that the district court erred in awarding the Circus the cost of its new bleachers. As it did not actually lose the...

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