10 Common mistakes that trial lawyers make that can lead to appellate disaster, and how to avoid them

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10 Common mistakes that trial lawyers make that can lead to appellate disaster, and how to avoid them

By Jeffrey I. Ehrlich

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Mistakes Trial Lawyers MakeGetting a case from the pleading stage through trial can be like trying to walk through a minefield. There are always procedural traps lurking to snare the unwary trial lawyer. Here are 10 easy, and distressingly common mistakes for a trial lawyer to make, which can have disastrous consequences on appeal. Happily, they are easily avoided, if you know what to look for.

Mistake 1: Failing to appeal from an appealable order or to take a writ from an order subject to review by a statutory writ

“There can be but one final judgment in an action, and that is one which in effect ends the suit in the court in which it is entered, and finally determines the rights of the parties in relation to the matter in controversy” (San Joaquin County Dept. of Child Support Services v. Winn (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 296, 300, 77 Cal.Rptr.3d 470, 472.) Under the “one final judgment” rule, an appeal will only lie from the final judgment; not from intermediate rulings. (Kinsmith Financial Corp. v. Gilroy (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 447, 452, 129 Cal.Rptr.2d 478, 481; Maier Brewing Co. v. Pacific Nat. Fire Ins. Co. (1961) 194 Cal.App.2d 494, 497, 15 Cal.Rptr. 177, 179.)

The flip side of the one-final judgment rule is that if a judgment or order is appealable, aggrieved parties must file a timely appeal or forever lose the opportunity to obtain appellate court review. (Eisenberg, Horvitz & Weiner, California Practice Guide — Civil Appeals and Writs (Rutter 2009 rev.)(“Civil Appeals”) § 2:13, emphasis in text.) This is a jurisdictional principle: Appellate courts have no discretion to entertain appellate or writ review of appealable judgments or orders from which a timely appeal was not taken. (Id., citing Code Civ. Proc. § 906; Marriage of Weiss (1996) 42 Cal.App.4th 106, 119, 49 Cal. Rprt. 2d 339, 348.) A related rule is that when appellate review of a particular order is mandated by writ (a “statutory writ”) and the statute provides that this is the exclusive manner to obtain review, the failure to file a timely statutory writ will forfeit the right to later appellate review. (Civil Appeals, ¶ 15:96.1.)

The potential trap for trial lawyers then, is that a court issues a ruling or order that is deemed final or appealable, and the lawyer fails to appeal at the time, thinking instead that the matter will be addressed in the appeal from the final judgment.

There is no easy, all-purpose rule to apply to avoid this problem. Instead, trial lawyers can protect themselves by (a) being familiar with section 904.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which sets forth which orders are appealable; and (b) having a passing understanding of the workings of the one-final judgment rule, and its exceptions, which allow appeals from less-than-final judgments or orders.

For example, a “death knell” order that denies certification of a class action, or that disposes of an entire class action (such as an order sustaining a demurrer to class allegations) is deemed “final” and is immediately appealable. (Linder v. Thrifty Oil Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 429, 435, 97 Cal.Rptr.2d 179, 184 [denying class certification]; Daar v. Yellow Cab Co. (1967) 67 Cal.2d 695, 699, 63 Cal.Rprt. 724, 728 [same]; Wilner v. Sunset Life Ins. Co. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 952, 957, 93 Cal.Rprt.2d 413, 416, fn. 1 [demurrer to class allegations].) The death-knell doctrine is therefore deemed part of the one-final judgment rule, not an exception to it.

In general, the law recognizes two general exceptions to the one final judgment rule: (1) a “collateral” final judgment or order, or (2) a judgment final as to a party. (“Civil Appeals” § 2.76.) The latter exception occurs frequently — when one party is simply dismissed from a case that goes on as the remaining parties. If you are the plaintiff and one of the defendants is dismissed, you must appeal at the time; not from the ultimate “final” judgment.

The definition of a “collateral order” is a bit more involved, and beyond the scope of this article. In general, it requires that three conditions be satisfied: (1) the order directs the performance of an act or the payment of money; (2) the order involve an issue that is wholly collateral to the main issue in the case; and (3) as to that collateral issue, the order is final. (Civil Appeals, § 2.77.)

Ultimately, every time an order is issued, the trial lawyer must consider whether it could be considered “final” and appealable, or within an exception to the one-final judgment rule, or subject to review by statutory writ. When in doubt, it may be worth asking an appellate lawyer.

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Appellate lawyer, Jeffrey EhrlichCalifornia appeals lawyer, Jeffrey I. Ehrlich, is the principal of the Ehrlich Law Firm with Los Angeles County law offices. He is certified as an appellate specialist by the California Bar’s Committee on Legal Specialization, and is the editor-in-chief of the Consumer Attorneys of Southern California’s Advocate magazine.