Lavender v. Kurn – Case Brief Summary
Summary of Lavender v. Kurn, 327 U.S. 645, 66 S. Ct. 740, 90 L. Ed. 916 (1946).
Lavender (P) sued on behalf of Haney, who had died from head injuries suffered while working as a switch tender for the St Louis-San Francisco Railway and the Illinois Central Railroad, which was represented by Kurn (D). At trial, Lavender tried to prove that the cause of death was a protruding mail hook on a train that struck Haney on the head as the train passed. Haney would have had to have been standing in a particular place and the hook would have hit Haney 63.5 inches above the ground.
The defendant claimed that Haney had been murdered. Haney had been working at night and had opened the switch as the train approached but had not closed it after it passed. Haney was found dead face down near the track. He had been killed by a fast moving round small object. His personal belongings had not been taken.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Lavender. The Missouri Supreme Court reversed on the grounds that it was mere speculation that Haney had been hit by the mail hook and the plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.
- What showing is required in order to overturn a jury verdict?
Holding and Rule
- A jury verdict may only be overturned if there is a complete absence of probative facts to support the verdict.
The court held that if there is any evidentiary basis for a verdict, an appellate court may not overturn a jury verdict. A jury can disregard or disbelieve facts that may be inconsistent with its conclusion and it may speculate and make conjecture to reach a verdict if the facts are disputed. This evidence demonstrates that there was evidence from which it might be inferred that the end of the mail hook struck Haney in the back of the head.
The court held that the jury had made its inference and the respondents were not free to relitigate the factual dispute on appeal.
Verdict for Lavender reinstated.
Courts of appeals do not assess the credibility of witnesses or the quality of evidence. That is the sole purview of the jury.
See Byrd v. Blue Ridge Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc. for a law school civil procedure case brief in which the Supreme Court held that the Erie doctrine does not supersede the mandate under the Seventh Amendment that the right to trial by jury be preserved for certain types of civil lawsuits.