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Helena Chemical Co. v. Nelson

December 29, 2000

HELENA CHEMICAL CO., PLAINTIFF/COUNTERCLAIM DEFENDANT,
v.
JESSE NELSON, SR. D/B/A NELSON FARMS, DEFENDANT/COUNTERCLAIMANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

After a five-day jury trial, the jury in this case found that the counterclaim plaintiff Jesse Nelson, Sr. t/a Nelson Farms, proved damages in the amount of $310,826 proximately caused by the negligence of counterclaim defendant Helena Chemical Co. in applying weed-killing chemicals to Nelson's fields in the Spring of 1996. The Court entered Judgment in this amount in favor of Nelson on October 3, 2000.

Presently before the Court are (1) the motion of plaintiff Helena Chemical Co. ("Helena") for new trial or in the alternative for remittitur pursuant to Rule 59, Fed. R. Civ. P.; and (2) the motion of defendant Jesse Nelson, Sr. ("Nelson") to amend the final judgment entered in this case on October 3, 2000 to add prejudgment interest, pursuant to Rule 59 and New Jersey Court Rule 4:42-11(b).

In the original complaint in this case, Helena sought payment of $78,000 plus interest and contractual attorney fees that it said Mr. Nelson owed for the cost of chemicals and services expended on his fields. In response, Mr. Nelson filed counterclaims asserting that he owed Helena nothing for the reason that Helena was instead liable to him for damages caused to his fields by Helena's negligent application of its chemicals which caused loss of crops in 1996 and 1997.

This Court entered an Opinion and Order in this case dated June 22, 2000 granting Nelson's motion for summary judgment in favor of his negligence claim, finding as a matter of law that Helena was negligent in applying the chemicals, and setting the case for trial on the issue of damages caused by Helena's negligence. (Docket Entry No. 26.) The Opinion and Order of June 22, 2000 also entered summary judgment against Nelson's claim under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, which is no longer before the Court. The facts and background of this case are more thoroughly set out therein.

After this Court entered its summary judgment Opinion, the parties stipulated as to the amount of Helena's contract damages, and Helena's claims were voluntarily dismissed on the first day of trial, September 25, 2000. (Docket Entry No. 43.) This left the amount of damages Helena owed Nelson upon Nelson's negligence counterclaim as the sole remaining issue in this case. The damages issue was tried before a jury, which rendered a verdict of $310,826 for Nelson on his negligence counterclaim.

Helena now moves the Court to Order a new trial, or to at least remit the jury's verdict, because the verdict was "grossly excessive" and was not based on the evidence presented at trial. For reasons discussed herein, Helena's motion for new trial or remittitur will be denied and Nelson's motion to add prejudgment interest will be granted.

I. Helena's Motion for New Trial or Remittitur

A. Legal Standards

1. New Trial

Although this Court sits in diversity, federal law governs the issue of whether to order a remittitur or new trial on damages. See Brayman v. 99 West, Inc., 116 F. Supp. 2d 225, 230 (D. Mass. 2000). Under Third Circuit precedent, the ordering of a new trial under Rule 59 is a disfavored remedy, as "[such an action effects a denigration of the jury system [because] to the extent that new trials are granted the judge takes over . . . the prime function of the jury as the trier of facts." Lind v. Schenley Indus., Inc., 278 F.2d 79, 90 (3d Cir. 1960) (en banc).Motions for new trial are seldom granted, especially when the asserted ground is insufficiency of evidence and the subject matter is not particularly complex and deals with material which is familiar and simple. See id. at 90-91. The party challenging the verdict -- in this case Helena -- bears a heavy burden of showing that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence and that "a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand." Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1290 (3d Cir. 1993).

2. Remittitur

Helena argues in the alternative that the Court should grant a remittitur in this case due to the excessiveness of the damages awarded. Remittitur is appropriate if the Court "finds that a decision of the jury is clearly unsupported and/or excessive." Spence v. Board of Educ. of Christina Sch. Dist., 806 F.2d 1198, 1201 (3d Cir. 1986); 11 Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil 2d § 2815 (1995); McDermott v. Party City Corp., 11 F. Supp. 2d 612, 620 (E.D. Pa. 1998). If remittitur is granted, the party against whom it is entered can accept it or can proceed to a new trial on the issue of damages. McDermott, 11 F. Supp. 2d at 620; 11 Wright Miller & Kane § 2815 at 160.

B. Analysis

The Court first turns to Helena's arguments in favor of a new trial, the main issue for decision being whether, under Rule 59, Fed. R. Civ. P., Helena has carried its burden of showing that the jury damages verdict in this case was so against the weight of the evidence that a miscarriage of justice would result if it were allowed to stand. For reasons now discussed, the Court determines that the jury's verdict comported with the evidence presented at trial, and finds that no new trial is warranted.

In assessing the proper damages verdict for Nelson's lost crops, the jury had to evaluate the evidence pertaining to (1) Nelson's probable yield of corn in 1996, (2) the price that Nelson would have received for corn that he would have sold but for the negligence of Helena, (3) Nelson's probable yield of soybeans in 1997, and (4) the price Nelson would have received for those soybeans that he would have sold but for the negligence of Helena. Nelson made a total damages claim of $350,000. As stated above, the jury eventually awarded Nelson $310,826. Helena now claims that the jury's calculation of damages was based on "huge assumptions" and thus was against the weight of the evidence.

The first issue for consideration is the sufficiency of the evidence adduced with respect to the 1996 corn yield. Nelson Farms consists of about 10 fields, of which only two (fields H and I on Ex. D-1) were treated, as previously, by Moyer, a local applicator, using chemical fertilizers and a weed control product called "BiCep" on these 130 acres. This is distinguished from Helena's application of "Prowl" to the 441 acres for which greatly reduced yields were claimed. (Helena also applied "BiCep" to 74 acres of Nelson's fields without incident in 1996.) On this issue, the jury had to decide whether to credit Mr. Nelson's estimate that he would have received a yield of 236 bushels of corn per acre ("bu/ac") on 441 acres of corn fields that were stunted by misapplication of Helena's Prowl herbicide. There were two components of this inquiry. First, the jury had to consider the reliability of Mr. Nelson's 236 bu/ac figure. Second, the jury had to consider whether this figure, which was based upon a sampling of three acres out of several hundred, could serve as a reliable indicator of what Nelson's overall corn yield would have been on the 441 acres treated with prowl but for Helena's negligent application.

The jury first heard from Jesse Nelson, Sr., who estimated that, but for the misapplication of Helena's Prowl herbicide, his fields would have yielded 236 bu/ac. (Nelson Br. at 6.) To reach this figure, Nelson testified that he selected three non-Prowl-treated acres from his property from Fields H and I and that this acreage yielded 236 bu/ac. Nelson also estimated that he would have received $4.47/bu based on two sales he made to Schalick Mills at that price. (Helena Br. at 3.) Nelson, Sr. explained that the Moyer-treated fields in 1996 were producing extraordinary results, which he and his son noticed and carefully measured in three samples. By passing over the fields to fill the 200 bushel combine to capacity three times, and then measuring the precise amount of land needed to generate the full load, they calculated a gross yield of wet corn of 260 bu/ac, which is reduced by formula to render an equivalent dry corn yield ...


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