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What’s The Appeal? Understanding How Appeals are Different from Trials.

When it comes to the law, it can seem like an appeal from a trial court’s ruling or judgment is a second chance, another bite at the apple, a “do-over” to try again to get the right result you were shooting for during your trial.

While it is true that the appellate process offers litigants an opportunity to challenge certain aspects of what occurred in the trial courtroom, the idea that it is a “do-over” is a gross overstatement. If you are involved in litigation, or have been on the losing end of a decision and are considering an appeal, it is important to understand what an appeal is – and is not.

Facts v. Law

If two parties have made it all the way to trial, there is clearly an intractable disagreement that requires the intervention of a third-party – a judge or jury – to resolve. Sometimes, this dispute may involve solely a question of law. For example, both parties agree they had a contract, and that contract contained a provision that is the focus of the dispute. The issue at trial (or more likely at the summary judgment stage) is whether that provision is enforceable under the law. This is a matter of looking at statutes and case law to make that decision.

More common at trial are disputes over questions of fact. Was the light red or was it green? Was the defendant in the area at the time of the crime or was he elsewhere? Did the defendant fire the plaintiff because of his race or for other, legitimate reasons? At trial, both sides present evidence – testimony from witnesses, documents, objects – designed to convince the judge or jury that their version of the facts is the correct one. Once the finder of fact has made their determination as to what the facts are, then the law is applied to those facts to make the final decision, verdict, or judgment in the case.

Only Questions of Law on Appeal

When the losing party at trial decides to appeal, the most fundamental thing they need to understand is that there will not be evidence presented, there will be no witnesses or testimony, there will not be another determination as to what the underlying facts of the case were, and there will not be a reevaluation of the wisdom or foolishness of a jury’s decision.

On appeal, the court solely looks at how the trial was conducted, and whether the correct rules, standards, and law were applied both substantively and procedurally. These are questions of law, not of fact.

Perhaps, over the objection of one of the litigants, the trial judge allowed the jury to hear testimony or review an exhibit that should have been barred under the rules of evidence. An appellant can argue on appeal that the judge made a mistake in admitting that evidence or testimony and that mistake potentially impacted the jury’s decision as to what the facts were. Or, to use the contract example above, perhaps the trial judge misapplied the substantive law when ruling on the enforceability of the disputed provision.

An appellate court will overrule a trial court’s decision only if a very important legal error was made in the trial court. In some cases, the appellate court judges might believe that the outcome of the trial court should have been different, but if no legal errors were made, they will not overrule the lower court. The appellate judges make their decisions based only on legal arguments of how the law should be applied and interpreted.

While, as discussed, an appeal is not a “do-over,” one possible result of an appeal in which the court found serious legal errors during the trial is that the case is sent back – or remanded – to the trial court for a retrial. In those instances, a litigant may in fact get another bite at the apple.

But if you find yourself on the losing end of a trial court decision, it is important to recognize that pursuing an appeal may not be a wise strategic decision if the basis of such an appeal is simply that “they jury got it wrong.”