The Court of Appeals, in a full-fledged opinion by Judge Abdus-Salaam, determined the Appellate Division used the wrong test when it reversed a civil assault verdict and ordered a new trial. The central issue was whether defendant was the initial aggressor. In the first trial, the jury found that the defendant had acted in self-defense. The plaintiff moved to set aside the verdict as a matter of law and, alternatively, to set aside the verdict as against the weight of the evidence. The trial court denied the motion. The Appellate Division, applying a weight of the evidence test, reversed and held ” ‘no fair interpretation of the evidence’ supported ‘the verdict finding that defendant acted in self-defense’ inasmuch as it was predicated upon ‘a conclusion that defendant was not the initial aggressor in the encounter’ .” Based on the Appellate Division’s ruling, at the second trial, the defendant was deemed the initial aggressor as a matter of law and the jury found for the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals held that the test the Appellate Division should have applied on its review of the first trial was the “utterly irrational (matter of law)” test, not the “weight of the evidence” test. Applying the correct test, the Court of Appeals found that the jury’s conclusion the defendant acted in self-defense was not “utterly irrational.” Therefore the Appellate Division should not have set aside defendant’s verdict and then precluded him from presenting the “initial aggressor/self-defense” question to the jury in the second trial:
The question before us is whether the Appellate Division’s legal conclusion in its 2012 order was reached under the proper test. When the Appellate Division reviews a jury determination, it may either examine the facts to determine whether the weight of the evidence comports with the verdict, or the court may determine that the evidence presented was insufficient as a matter of law, rendering the verdict utterly irrational … . Defendant argues that the Appellate Division erred by setting aside the jury verdict in his favor and improperly determining as a matter of law that a justification defense was unavailable to him, without finding the verdict to be utterly irrational. We agree. * * *
In its 2012 order, although the Appellate Division examined the facts and determined that “the jury’s conclusion that defendant was not the first to threaten the immediate use of physical force [wa]s unreachable on any fair interpretation of the evidence” (98 AD3d 830) — ostensibly a weight of the evidence review — the effect of that order was to hold as a matter of law that defendant was the initial aggressor to whom the defense of justification was not available — a determination that could only be reached by concluding that the verdict was “utterly irrational.” Yet, the Appellate Division did not use the utterly irrational test. The Appellate Division’s error in not applying the proper test resulted in defendant being improperly precluded from raising a justification defense on the retrial. Defendant should have been afforded a new trial on all the issues in the case, including consideration of his justification defense by the jury. Despite this error, reversal is only required if we find that the jury verdict was not utterly irrational.
Because determining whether a jury verdict was utterly irrational involves a pure question of law, this Court may look at the trial evidence and make that determination … . We must consider the jury charge as to initial aggressor and self-defense that was given during the first trial because the instruction, submitted without objection, is the law of the case … . Based on that instruction, … we hold that the jury’s determination that defendant acted in self-defense was not utterly irrational. * * *
Accordingly, the order appealed from and the … Appellate Division order insofar as brought up for review should be reversed, with costs, and the matter remitted to Supreme Court for a new trial in accordance with the opinion herein. Killon v Parrotta, 2016 NY Slip Op 07048, CtApp 10-27-16
CIVIL PROCEDURE (APPEALS, APPELLATE DIVISION APPLIED TO WRONG TEST TO A MOTION TO SET ASIDE THE VERDICT AS A MATTER OF LAW; APPLYING THE CORRECT TEST, THE JURY VERDICT WAS NOT “UTTERLY IRRATIONAL” AND SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SET ASIDE)/APPEALS (CIVIL, MOTION TO SET ASIDE VERDICT AS A MATTER OF LAW, APPELLATE DIVISION APPLIED TO WRONG TEST TO A MOTION TO SET ASIDE THE VERDICT AS A MATTER OF LAW; APPLYING THE CORRECT TEST, THE JURY VERDICT WAS NOT “UTTERLY IRRATIONAL” AND SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SET ASIDE)/VERDICT, MOTION TO SET ASIDE (APPEALS, APPELLATE DIVISION APPLIED TO WRONG TEST TO A MOTION TO SET ASIDE THE VERDICT AS A MATTER OF LAW; APPLYING THE CORRECT TEST, THE JURY VERDICT WAS NOT “UTTERLY IRRATIONAL” AND SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SET ASIDE)