Either party in a civil lawsuit can challenge the trial court's final judgment by filing an appeal. The appeal is decided by a higher court, called the appellate court. The party filing the appeal is called the appellant, and the other party is called the appellee.

The winning party in the trial court might challenge the trial judgment and file an appeal if he or she thinks they were not awarded enough money. The losing party might challenge the judgment if they think there was not enough evidence to enter a judgment against them. The appellant has the burden of persuading the appellate court that the trial court committed an error. Standards of review are the principles used by the appellate court to review the trial court's judgment.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

The appellate court reviews the trial court's judgment to determine whether the evidence in the record is strong enough to support the judgment. If the trial court's judgment was in favor of the plaintiff (the person suing), the appellate court looks at whether the evidence, if believed, would convince the average person that the plaintiff proved his/her case by a preponderance of the evidence. On appeal, the reviewing court does not weigh the evidence or determine the credibility (believability) of witnesses. Instead, the appellate court accepts the trial court's fact finding and affirms the judgment unless the appellate standard is not met.

Manifest Weight of the Evidence

Generally, the appellate court will not reverse a judgment as against the weight of the evidence if there is any believable evidence in the case that supports the trial court's judgment. The appellate court has the duty to weigh the evidence and determine whether the findings of the trial court were so against the weight of the evidence as to require a reversal and a retrial. The reviewing court can reverse the judgment when the verdict is so clearly unreasonable, given the evidence, that it is unjust.

Abuse of Discretion

A judicial abuse of discretion occurs when the trial judge acts in an arbitrary or unreasonable way that results in unfairly denying a person an important right or causes an unjust result. Various types of decisions are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. For example, the trial judge's decision to award or deny attorney fees in a case will be upheld unless there was an abuse of discretion. In dividing marital debt, the trial court has broad discretion in determining how and in what manner the debt should be divided. Generally, a judge's division of marital debt will not be disturbed on appeal unless there is a clear showing that the judge acted way out of line. 

Plain Error

The plain error standard of review permits the appellate court to review errors that were not objected to at trial if such errors are extremely unjust or unfair. Plain error is limited to error that is evident, obvious, and clear. To establish plain error based on wrongly allowed evidence, there must be apparent prejudice to the criminal defendant. That is, there is no plain error unless the bad evidence caused the defendant's conviction. There is no prejudice or plain error if there is plenty of other good evidence to support the conviction. The plain error rule is applied only in exceptional circumstances.

Harmless Error

The appellate court will not overturn a judgment on the basis of any error that is harmless. A harmless error is an insignificant error that does not change the outcome of the case. For example, the introduction of improper evidence that goes to motive is harmless error in a criminal case where there is a conviction for an offense requiring no motive.

Doctrine of Invited Error

Under the doctrine of invited error, the appellate court will not permit a person to take advantage of an error that was invited or caused by that person. For example, a party may not request a jury instruction and then later complain on appeal that the requested instruction was given. Such action would constitute invited error.

De Novo

De novo, which means anew or over again, review refers to the appellate court's authority to review the trial court's conclusions regarding the application, interpretation, and construction of law. Generally, the proper standard of review for employee benefit decisions, such as the denial of benefit claims, is de novo. Also, where the appellate court undertakes judicial review of compulsory arbitration proceedings that were required by statute, the reviewing court must conduct a de novo review of the interpretation and application of the law by the arbitrators.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Which standard of review applies to the appeal in my case?
  • Can we submit new evidence in the de novo review of an appeal from an arbitration?
  • What is meant by a preponderance of the evidence?

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