While in jury trials courts may not determine issues of fact from the evidence, courts, for certain purposes, may determine whether sufficient evidence exists from which issues of fact may be submitted to the jury.13 One context for the application of this rule is the motion for judgment as a matter of law in a civil trial.14 In a jury trial, if a party has been fully heard with respect to an issue and the matter has not yet been submitted to the jury, an adverse party may make a motion for judgment as a matter of law.15 In such circumstance, the trial judge must determine whether or not, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there is a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party with respect to that issue. If such is the case, then the judge must submit the factual issues to the jury for its determination. But if the court is convinced that, under the law, no verdict for the non-movant could be justified, it has a duty to grant the motion.16 In passing on the motion, the trial court may not weigh the evidence or pass on its credibility.17 Thus, a judge may not take the case away from the jury merely because the moving party offers evidence to bolster his or her credibility.18 A simple denial by one party of the other party’s claims may be sufficient to warrant submission of the case to the jury.19
The moving party must state the specific legal and factual grounds for the motion.20 The reason is that otherwise a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law21 might be entered at the close of trial on a ground that could have been met with proof had it been suggested.22 Faced with a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court in its discretion may allow the non-moving party to reopen its case to supplement the record to meet the motion.23 The court may also defer deciding the motion until after trial.24 If the motion is denied, the moving party may submit evidence to the jury without having specifically reserved the right to do so and to the same extent as if the motion had not been made.25 If a motion for judgment as a matter of law is denied or otherwise not granted, the court is deemed to have submitted the action to the jury, subject to a later determination of the legal issue raised by the motion.
A motion for judgment as a matter of law is a necessary prerequisite to a motion for a new trial or a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law after the close of evidence, so that prior to the submission of the case to the jury, the ground given for judgment as a matter of law might have been met by proof.26 But that formality may be ignored in the interest of justice in cases where the undisputed evidence results in a verdict that is totally without legal support.27
13. Philadelphia, B. & W. R. Co. v. Gatta, 85 A. 721, 729 (Del. 1913).
14. See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50. This was previously known as a “directed verdict.” In earlier times the judge would instruct the jury to return a verdict in favor of the defendant. The change to the phrase “judgment as a matter of law” appears to reflect the fact that if the motion is granted by the judge, it is effective without any action or assent by the jury. Notwithstanding the change in terminology, the motion remains governed by the same legal principles. Mazda Motor Corp. v. Lindahl, 706 A.2d 526, 529 n.2 (Del. 1998).
15. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50(a)(1),(2).
16. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50(a)(1); Trievel v. Sabo, 714 A.2d 742, 744-45 (Del. 1998); Mazda Motor Corp. v. Lindahl, 706 A.2d 526, 530 (Del.1998); Mercedes-Benz of North America, Inc. v. Norman Gershman’s Things to Wear, Inc., 596 A.2d 1358, 1362 (Del. 1991); Moody v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 549 A.2d 291, 292-93 (Del. 1988); Gannett Co. v. Re, 496 A.2d 553, 557 (Del. 1985); McNally v. Eckman, 466 A.2d 363-67 (Del. 1983); Eustice v. Rupert, 460 A.2d 507, 509 (Del. 1983); Chesapeake & Potomac Tel. Co. v. Chesapeake Utilities Corp., 436 A.2d 314, 329 (Del. 1981); Delmarva Power & Light v. Stout, 380 A.2d 1365, 1368 (Del. 1977); Millman v. Millman, 359 A.2d 158, 160 (Del. 1976); Hyman Reiver & Co. v. Merlonghi, 236 A.2d 367, 368 (Del. 1967); Parks v. Ziegler, 221 A.2d 510, 511 (Del. 1966); O’Hara v. Petrillo Bros., Inc., 216 A.2d 672, 673 (Del. 1966); Ebersole v. Lowengrub, 208 A.2d 495, 497-98 (Del. 1965); Hyman Reiver & Co. v. Rose, 147 A.2d 500, 503 (Del. 1958); Taylor v. Du Pont Bldg. Corp., 99 A. 284, 286 (Del. 1916).
17. Trievel v. Sabo, 714 A.2d 742, 744-45 (Del. 1998); Burgos v. Hickok, 695 A.2d 1141, 1144-45 (Del. 1997); Moody v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 549 A.2d 291, 294 (Del. 1988); Millman v. Millman, 359 A.2d 158, 160 (Del. 1976).
18. Moody v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 549 A.2d 291, 294 (Del. 1988).
19. Hyman Reiver & Co. v Rose, 147 A.2d 500, 503 (Del. 1958).
20. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50(a)(2).
21. See § 29:2.
22. Maher v. Voss, 98 A.2d 499, 505 (Del. 1953).
23. Emerson v. Universal Products Co., 179 A. 383, 384 (Del. Super. 1934).
24. Union Wholesale Co. v. Bank of Delaware, 190 A.2d 761, 767 (Del. Super. 1963), aff’d, 203 A.2d 109 (Del. 1964).
25. Comm. Pls. Ct. Civ. R. 50(a).
26. Episcopo v. Minich, 203 A.2d 273, 277 (Del. 1964); Peters v. Geib, 314 A.2d 901, 904 (Del. 1973).
27. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50(b); Peters v. Gelb, 314 A.2d 901, 904 (Del. 1973).
© 2010 David L. Finger