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Issues of Law Versus Issues of Fact in Appellate cases

If you are considering a civil appeal, one of your first steps must be narrowing the issues you will ask the court to consider, and hopefully reverse, as part of the appellate process. With few exceptions, the Courts of Appeal focus only on questions of law, not questions of fact. So, what does that mean?

Definition: Question of Fact

During a trial in the California superior court system, all questions of fact are decided by the trier of fact which is either a jury or a judge. Questions of fact are answered by the judge or jury based upon the witnesses’ testimony and physical items that were admitted into evidence along with the inferences drawn from them.

For example, in a personal injury trial, questions of fact may include whether the plaintiff fell and where he fell. In a speeding case, a question of fact could be whether the defendant was actually speeding.

Definition: Question of Law

Questions of law are also decided in California trials, but they are decided by the trial judge alone. The judge determines which laws are relevant to the case at bar, and applies those legal principles to the particular facts that were elicited during the trial. It takes years of education and experience to interpret and understand the complicated laws of the United States and California. Jury members simply can’t make these important decisions.

Using the same examples mentioned above, in the personal injury trial, the judge may have to answer questions of law such as whether the owner of the property where the fall occurred had an obligation to protect the plaintiff or maintain the property in a certain condition. In the speeding case, the judge might have to decide whether a certain speed limit applied in the area where the ticket was issued.

What Happens at the California Appellate Level?

Some people believe when a trial decision is appealed, the Courts of Appeal will hold a brand new trial and consider new or different evidence when deciding if the trial court made a mistake. The appellate process does not work this way.

In a civil appeal, the court does not allow witness testimony, introduction of evidence, or argument about the facts that were determined by the prior judge or jury. Only questions of law can be presented, argued, and decided by the appellate court. Appellate judges decide whether the appropriate law was applied correctly to the established facts in each case.

Returning to our prior example, if the jury found that the plaintiff fell and sustained injuries on the defendant’s property, the defendant cannot argue on appeal that the plaintiff didn’t really fall or the property belonged to someone else. The defendant may be able to argue that the law did not impose a duty on him to protect the plaintiff or repair the condition of the property, or that the judge misapplied the law during the trial.

Civil appeals are complicated and technical. If you are dissatisfied with the outcome you received after a trial in the California superior court, you may or may not have grounds for an appeal. A California Appellate specialist can answer this question and provide advice about the viability of your civil appeal.

Few California Attorneys Specialize in Appellate Cases

As a certified Appellate Specialist, Noreen Evans is licensed to appear and argue legal cases in every level of the California court system, including the Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Attorney Evans is also admitted to several federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, and the United States Tax Court. At Evans Kingsbury LLP, we provide our clients with decades of litigation and appellate experience. Call us today at (707) 596-6090 or fill out our easy contact form to discuss your case.

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