Failure to Specify “Insufficient Evidence” in Trial Motions Removes This Ground for Reversal

The Alabama Supreme Court clarified “the precision with which” insufficiency of the evidence must be stated in motions for judgment as a matter of law, in order to preserve that argument as a basis for reversal. Ex parte Dekle, No. 1051659 (Ala. Apr. 11, 2008). A landowner who argued only that the plaintiffs had “failed to prove their cause of action,” and later “just renew[ed]” that motion, did not preserve insufficient evidence as a ground for reversal. The state’s high court thus upheld a no-opinion affirmance by the Court of Civil Appeals.

The trial court entered a judgment finding that the plaintiffs had acquired a prescriptive easement over the defendants’ property. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed this decision without opinion, and the defendants sought certiorari review in the Supreme Court of Alabama.

The state’s high court took the case to address “the required precision with which grounds must be stated in a renewed motion for a JML [judgment as a matter of law] or, alternatively, for a new trial, based on insufficiency of the evidence.” The court never returned explicitly to the issue of motions for a new trial. Motions for JML, the court said, must satisfy a two-pronged test. First, the movant “must have asked for a [JML] at the close of all evidence, specifying ‘insufficiency of the evidence’ as a ground.” Second, the movant “must have renewed this motion . . . [and] again specified the same insufficiency-of-the-evidence ground.”

In this case, the court found, “the Court of Civil Appeals could reasonably have concluded that the [defendants] failed to provide the specificity required by each prong of the test.” When they moved at the close of the plaintiffs’ case-in-chief, they argued only that “the plaintiffs failed to prove their cause of action.” When they renewed the motion later, they merely said: “We just renew the motion previously made.” They “did not specify ‘insufficiency of the evidence’ in their motion,” and the state’s high court thus found “no error” in the affirmance by the Court of Civil Appeals.

(The state’s high court also touched on three other rules of appellate law. First, it explained that certiorari review is de novo, and employs the same standard applied by the intermediate appeals court. Second, it found that the Court of Civil Appeals had correctly refused to entertain an argument that had not been presented to the trial court; appellate courts “cannot consider arguments raised for the first time on appeal.” Third, it found no error in the Court of Civil Appeals’ refusing to address an argument that was “[not] supported by citations to the record” or “to legal authority.” “Where an appellant fails to cite any authority,” the court reminded readers, it “may affirm, for it is neither [the court’s] duty” nor “function to perform all of the legal research for the appellant.”)