To Err Is Human, But The Tipsy Coachman Rule Can Get The Trial Judge Home

Florida intermediate appellate courts are error-correcting courts. We all know that. So when does a Florida appellate court not correct error? When it finds the error is harmless1 or when it applies the tipsy coachman rule and affirms, despite finding error, because the result is deemed right for the wrong reason.

The phrase "tipsy coachman" comes from a 1774 poem titled "Retaliation" by Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith. It appears to have first been used in a reported judicial decision in this country in the 1879 Georgia decision in Lee v. Porter, 63 Ga. 345 (1879).2 In the poem, the coachman is tipsy but the horse, nonetheless, gets him home.

The Georgia court leads into its quote of the poem by saying, "The human mind is so constituted that in many instances it finds the truth when wholly unable to find the way that leads to it."3 Thus, the court observed that "[i]t not infrequently happens that a judgment is affirmed upon a theory of the case which did not occur to the court that rendered it, or which did occur and was expressly repudiated." 4

The earliest Florida decision employing the rule appears to be Carraway v. Armour & Co., 156 So. 2d 494 (1963), in which the Florida Supreme Court observed that the rule was "appropriately used" in Lee and quoted the poem itself.5 On this basis, the court quashed an order of the Industrial Commission that had reversed an award of workers' compensation benefits issued by the deputy commissioner.6 Although the deputy commissioner had proceeded under the wrong statutory provision, he had "arrived at a substantially correct conclusion" under a different statutory provision, and his order had to be reinstated.7

By 1984, in Vandergriff v. Vandergriff, 456 So. 2d 464 (Fla. 1984), the supreme court recognized as "well-established" the rule that "trial court decisions are presumptively valid and should be affirmed, if correct, regardless of whether the reasons advanced are erroneous."8 But it was Judge Cowart of the Fifth District Court of Appeal, who in a dissent that same year in Holland v. Holland, 458 So. 2d 81 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984), harkened back to Goldsmith's poem and observed that "in some legal circles this rule of law is known as the 'tipsy coachman' rule."9

Hundreds of Florida opinions since have used the phrase "tipsy coachman" in affirming a trial court's decision. Many more opinions, both inside and outside Florida, rely on the "right for any reason" or "right for the wrong reason" rule, without referring to it as the "tipsy coachman." Though the rule is frequently employed by Florida appellate courts, its application is far from automatic. Moreover, it presents some very interesting legal issues for the appellate practitioner, which are considered in this article, as well as some of the strategic considerations the rule can implicate.

What Exactly Does "In The Record" Mean?

To begin with, the question arises whether the rule can be applied by the appellate court to affirm a trial court ruling based on an argument that never was directly presented to the trial court. The usual rule, of course, is that a trial judge must be provided an opportunity to correct an alleged error; only then is it preserved for appellate review and available as a ground for reversal.10

The rule is not necessarily the same when it comes to arguments for affirmance. In Dade County School Bd. v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So. 2d 638 (Fla. 1999), for example, the Florida Supreme Court explained that under the tipsy coachman rule, "if a trial court reaches the right result but for the wrong reason, it will be upheld if there is any basis that could support the judgment in the record."11 That can, however, be just the start of the inquiry by the appellate court.

In State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. v. Levine, 837 So. 2d 363 (Fla. 2002), in somewhat unusual circumstances, the supreme court addressed the requirement that the alternative ground asserted for affirmance be "in the record." In that case, the trial court had denied a motion for new trial grounded on a post-trial claim of juror nondisclosure during voir dire.12 The district court affirmed. The supreme court, however, had subsequently invalidated the "absolute" requirement that investigation of the venire to be completed during trial, and the respondent conceded that the district court had erred in affirming based on that now overturned rule.13

But then, citing Radio Station WQBA, the respondent argued that the district court's decision nonetheless should be affirmed under the tipsy coachman rule because the juror's nondisclosure was not material.14 The supreme court declined to apply tipsy coachman, saying, "[T]he record does not provide an adequate basis for us to reach such materiality conclusion as a matter of law."15 Although there had been some argument on materiality to the trial court, neither counsel nor the trial court had focused on that issue.16

The Levine court concluded not only that the alternative argument urged for affirmance was never raised in the trial court, but also that the failure had led to an insufficient record to fairly support it.17 The supreme court accordingly remanded the case to the trial court for consideration of the proper principles governing juror non-disclosure.18

In doing so, the supreme court specifically relied on its decision in Robertson v. State, 829 So. 2d 901, 906 (Fla. 2002), as establishing "the key to applying the tipsy coachman doctrine is that the record before the trial court must support the alternative theory or principles of law."19 In Robertson, the district court, in an en banc plurality decision, concluded the evidence that the defendant had previously threatened someone else with an AK-47 was permissible Williams rule evidence, and it affirmed the trial court on this ground, even though it had not been either raised by the state or considered by the trial court.20

The supreme court, however, held that the district court erred in holding this testimony was admissible under the Williams rule.21 In doing so, the court also specifically addressed the district court's "misapplication...

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