Huskie’s Owner Confuses Manifest Weight Standard Of Review With Burden Of Proof At Trial

Molly, a dachshund, was mauled by Cosmo, a Siberian Huskie. Mark and Mindy Leith, Molly’s owners, sued Andrew Frost, Cosmo’s owner, for tortious damage to property. After a bench trial, a judge awarded nominal damages to Mark and Mindy. They thought they should have been awarded the several thousand dollars they paid a veterinarian who treated Molly. So Mark and Mindy appealed.

The case is important for appellate practitioners because it points out a common mistake in stating the correct standard of review. Andrew argued that “the manifest weight of the evidence did not show that Cosmo was the dog that attacked Molly.” But Andrew’s statement of the standard of review was exactly the opposite of correct one. The party appealing has to show that the court’s conclusion was against the manifest weight of the evidence, not that the winner in the trial court failed to prove his case by the manifest weight. The Fourth District Illinois Appellate Court explained:

This argument [Andrew’s] misstates the standard of review. If we asked whether the manifest weight of the evidence supported the trial court’s factual findings, our standard of review would be de novo. Instead, we are to ask a deferential question: whether the court’s factual findings or conclusions are against the manifest weight of the evidence … A conclusion is against the manifest weight of the evidence if the opposite conclusion is apparent from the record … A finding is against the manifest weight of the evidence if the finding is unreasonable, arbitrary, or not based on evidence … The court concluded that plaintiffs had proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Cosmo attacked Molly. The opposite conclusion–that plaintiff failed to so prove–is not apparent from the record. The court found that Cosmo attacked Molly. That finding is not unreasonable, arbitrary, or lacking in any evidentiary basis. Plaintiffs and defendant had been next-door neighbors for three weeks. Mindy Leith testified she had looked over the fence and had seen Cosmo. She testified she stood over Cosmo as Cosmo mauled Molly.

Andrew’s statement of the law would place an increased burden on tort plaintiffs in the trial court. By Andrew’s interpretation of the law, a tort plaintiff would have to prove his case by a manifest weight of the evidence, not the more common “preponderance of the evidence” standard. The common mistake here was confusing “burden of proof” in the trial court with the “standard of review” in the appellate court.

In the end, the appellate court awarded Mark and Mindy compensation for the veterinary fees. Read the whole case, Leith v. Frost, No. 4-07-0964 (12/31/08), by clicking here.