Valenty v. Saraiva

Citation292 So.3d 50
Decision Date11 March 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 2D18-4002
Parties Michael J. VALENTY, Appellant, v. Wilson SARAIVA, Appellee.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)

Warren B. Kwavnick of Cooney, Trybus, Kwavnick, Peets, PLC, Fort Lauderdale, for Appellant.

K. Mitch Espat of MattLaw, Tampa, for Appellee.


A car driven by Michael Valenty collided with a motorcycle ridden by Wilson Saraiva. Mr. Saraiva sued Mr. Valenty for negligence, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Valenty. Mr. Saraiva moved for a new trial, which the trial court granted on the basis that the jury's verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence. In reaching that conclusion, the trial court incorrectly reasoned that Mr. Valenty's fault in the accident was undisputed. We reverse.

Mr. Saraiva and Mr. Valenty were both traveling eastbound on Linebaugh Avenue in Tampa in the morning of March 26, 2018. Mr. Saraiva was riding his motorcycle in the left lane, while Mr. Valenty was driving his car in the right lane about a quarter of a mile ahead. Mr. Valenty slowed for a red light, which turned green before he had to come to a complete stop. Mr. Saraiva maintained his speed, and when their respective vehicles passed through the intersection, they were not far apart. Mr. Valenty changed lanes from the right lane to the left lane. As he did so, the rear left side of his car collided with the front right side of Mr. Saraiva's motorcycle. Mr. Valenty did not see Mr. Saraiva's motorcycle at any time prior to the accident.

Mr. Saraiva sued Mr. Valenty for negligence seeking damages for injuries he sustained in the accident. The case proceeded to a jury trial. At the trial, the issues of liability and damages were both litigated. As to liability, the litigation was over whether Mr. Valenty was negligent. On damages, the litigation was over the extent to which Mr. Saraiva suffered all the damages he claimed and the extent to which those damages were the result of a preexisting injury from a previous motorcycle accident.

The evidence about the circumstances leading up to the accident came through the testimony of Mr. Saraiva, the testimony of an accident reconstruction expert he retained, and the testimony of Mr. Valenty. Mr. Saraiva's story was straightforward. He testified that he was riding his motorcycle at a consistent speed of five miles per hour below the speed limit alongside Mr. Valenty's car. According to Mr. Saraiva, Mr. Valenty's car unexpectedly moved into the left lane. Mr. Saraiva tried to swerve left to avoid it but was unable to get out of the way in time and was struck by Mr. Valenty's car.

Mr. Valenty's explanation of what happened was somewhat more elaborate. He testified that he was driving behind a slow-moving vehicle in the right lane of Linebaugh Avenue and, at the same time, that there was a white SUV not too far behind him in the left lane. Mr. Valenty wanted to pass the slow-moving vehicle in front of him. He checked his rear-view mirror and looked over his left shoulder and saw that the white SUV was too close for him to change lanes and pass courteously.

Mr. Valenty turned on his blinker and sped up a little to make room to pass. He checked his rear-view mirror and looked over his shoulder again, and this time the SUV was far enough behind him for him to pass. He did not see any other vehicles. He was traveling at forty-five miles per hour, which was the speed limit on Linebaugh Avenue. He began changing lanes, and after he got a third of the way into the left lane, he heard brakes screeching. A couple of seconds later, he felt Mr. Saraiva's motorcycle run into his car. Mr. Valenty argued that because he checked twice and did not see the motorcycle either time, Mr. Saraiva must have been behind the white SUV just before Mr. Valenty started changing lanes. Mr. Valenty asserted that Mr. Saraiva must have tried to speed around the white SUV and get back into the left lane at the same time Mr. Valenty was changing lanes and that it was this unsafe maneuver that caused the accident.

Mr. Saraiva's accident reconstruction expert opined that Mr. Saraiva was driving safely and that Mr. Valenty changed into the left lane without seeing Mr. Saraiva, thereby causing the accident. He did not, however, opine that Mr. Valenty was negligent. Rather, when asked during direct examination whether Mr. Valenty was driving safely, he opined that Mr. Valenty's "intention appeared to be safe, but ... he failed to recognize the motorcycle." And during cross-examination, he testified that motorists often encounter difficulties in seeing motorcycles that they do not encounter in seeing cars, especially at night. He explained that because motorcycles have only one headlight and typically do not drive in the center of a lane (to avoid oil deposited there), it is possible for a driver looking in a rear view mirror to believe he or she is seeing a car with two headlights when really there is a motorcycle with one headlight aligned in front of one of the headlights of a car that is traveling behind it.

The expert further acknowledged that Mr. Valenty's theory that Mr. Saraiva made a fast and unsafe passing maneuver around the white SUV was possible given the evidence. The expert believed that it was highly unlikely that theory was how the accident happened, however, because (1) it would have been difficult for Mr. Saraiva to speed around the SUV and be back in the left lane near Mr. Valenty at the time the collision occurred and (2) the position in which Mr. Saraiva's motorcycle fell after hitting Mr. Valenty's car made the theory less likely.

At the close of the evidence, Mr. Saraiva made a motion for a directed verdict solely on the issue of causation—not on whether Mr. Valenty was negligent—which the trial court denied. The case was then submitted to the jury. With respect to Mr. Valenty's alleged liability to Mr. Saraiva, the jury was presented with a standard interrogatory that asked it to determine whether there was "negligence on the part of Defendant Michael J. Valenty, which was a legal cause of damage to Wilson Saraiva." See In re Standard Jury Instructions in Civil Cases—Report No. 12-01, 130 So. 3d 596, 629 (Fla. 2013). The jury answered that question in the negative, thus resolving the case in Mr. Valenty's favor.

Mr. Saraiva filed a motion for a new trial in which he argued that improper and inflammatory comments by defense counsel during closing arguments prejudiced him and that the trial court should have granted a directed verdict on causation. At a hearing on the motion, the trial court sua sponte considered whether the jury's verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence, explaining that "it just never entered my mind when I was sitting there waiting for that jury to come back that I was going to hear" a defense verdict. The trial court stated that "it is certainly as surprising a verdict as I think I've ever gotten" because "I mean, the guy pulled over in his lane, hit him, hit him in the blind side of his car," it was "dark," and Mr. Valenty "admitted he was speeding up to get in front of a slow driver in front of him."

The trial court later entered a written order granting a new trial on grounds that the verdict "was against the manifest weight of the evidence" because "it was undisputed that Mr. Valenty caused the accident by crossing into Mr. Saraiva's lane of traffic." Although the order is phrased in terms of causation, given the trial court's comments at the hearing, we take it to mean that the trial court concluded that Mr. Valenty's liability for the accident was undisputed. Indeed, had the trial court meant only that causation was undisputed, it could not have ordered a new trial because it would have remained possible that the jury decided the case adversely to Mr. Saraiva on the basis that Mr. Valenty was not negligent even if causation had been undisputed. See Meyers v. Shontz, 251 So. 3d 992, 1002 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018) (citing Hernandez v. Gonzalez, 124 So. 3d 988, 990 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013) ).

In this timely appeal, Mr. Valenty argues that the trial court erred in granting a new trial because his fault in the accident, contrary to the trial court's reasoning, was not undisputed.1 Our review is for abuse of discretion. Moore v. Gillett, 96 So. 3d 933, 938 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012). In applying that deferential standard to the facts here, we are mindful that "it takes a stronger showing of error in order to reverse an order granting a new trial than an order denying a new trial." Id. (quoting Harris v. Grunow, 71 So. 3d 186, 188 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011) ); see also Grant v. Williams, 190 So. 2d 23, 26 (Fla. 2d DCA 1966) (describing "the old rule that a stronger showing is required to upset an order granting than an order denying a motion for new trial").

The deference the law grants a trial court granting a motion for new trial based on the manifest weight of the evidence does not, however, grant it a license to operate "as a super-juror by disregarding a jury's verdict simply because the judge would have rendered a different one had it been the judge's choice to make." Meyers, 251 So. 3d at 999 (citing Brown v. Estate of Stuckey, 749 So. 2d 490, 495 (Fla. 1999) ; Phar-Mor of Fla., Inc. v. Steuernagel, 550 So. 2d 548, 550 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989) ). Rather, the trial court's role is to assess the totality of the evidence presented at trial and intervene only when that evidence is manifestly weighted to the movant's side. See Meyers, 251 So. 3d at 1000 ; Phar-Mor, 550 So. 2d at 550. And if it decides to grant a new trial on that basis, the trial court must state its reasons with specificity in a written order so that its decision can be effectively...

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