Can the Tipsy Coachman Get You Home (and an affirmance)?

Can the Tipsy Coachman Get You Home (and an affirmance)? By Suzanne LabritApparently unable to find his way home to Georgia, the tipsy coachman lurched into Florida decades ago and has been careening through Florida appellate jurisprudence ever since. See Carraway v. Armour, 156 So. 2d 494 (Fla. 1963); Home Depot v. Taylor, 676 So. 2d 479 (5th DCA 1996).

The tipsy coachman doctrine—which only applies to support affirmance, not as a basis for reversal—allows an appellee to argue for affirmance on grounds other than those the trial court relied upon. Adv. Chiro & Rehab Ctr. Corp. v. United Auto. Ins. Co., 103 So. 3d 866, 869 (4th DCA 2012). It is based on the principle that an appellate court may affirm a trial court decision that reached the right result for the wrong reason.  Shands v. Mercury Ins. Co. of Fla., 97 So. 3d 204 (Fla. 2012).

Of course, when advocating for the appellee, it is generally not advisable to criticize the primary or stated basis for the trial court’s ruling—although it sometimes may be necessary to concede error or at least acknowledge the possibility of it. The tipsy coachman doctrine can provide a ‘back-up’ basis for affirmance where the trial court’s primary or stated reasoning may not be adequate to support affirmance of the decision being reviewed.

The “key to application of this doctrine of appellate efficiency is that there must have been some support for the alternative theory or principle of law in the record before the trial court.” Robertson v. State, 829 So. 2d 901, 906-907. For this reason, inviting the tipsy coachman to an appellee’s affirmance party is sometimes easier said than done.

Applying the Tipsy Coachman Doctrine in Evidentiary Matters Relies on the Record

Where the alternate basis for affirmance is not purely legal, but instead involves evidentiary matters, application of the doctrine turns on whether the factual basis supporting the alternate legal theory is in the record. See, e.g., Bueno v. Workman, 20 So. 3d 993, 998 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) (declining to apply tipsy coachman doctrine to affirm dismissal on ‘fraud on the court’ theory, explaining that trial court “did not make factual findings on the defendant’s fraud argument, [so] it would be inappropriate for us to consider that argument in this appeal.”).

Compare this with Luciani v. Nealon, 181 So. 3d 1200, 1203 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015) (applying tipsy coachman doctrine to affirm involuntary dismissal where “trial court improperly weighed the evidence and determined that Appellant had not met his burden of proof on any causes of action”; concluding affirmance was warranted because record on appeal confirmed “that Appellant failed to establish a prima facie case as to his causes of action”).

A reviewing court may decline to apply the doctrine where the alternate basis for affirmance is not sufficiently developed in the record. See Fed. Nat’l Mortg. Ins. Ass’n v. Morton, 196 So. 3d 428 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016) (declining to apply tipsy coachman doctrine to affirm involuntary dismissal where alternative basis for affirmance was pled in movant’s answer but not argued in motion for involuntary dismissal).

When the Tipsy Coachman Doctrine May Not Apply

A party is not required to (and in many instances, would be ill-advised to) challenge a favorable ruling to correct or complete the trial judge’s reasoning in issuing the order, so it is not necessary to ‘preserve’ an alternate legal theory to rely on the tipsy coachman doctrine.

But in at least one case, the reviewing court chose not to apply the doctrine where it was not clear the trial court had relied on the alternate basis for affirmance in making its ruling. See Wagner v. Strickland, 908 So. 2d 549, 551 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005). There, the First DCA considered four different theories of error in an appeal from a dismissal order that did not specify the trial court’s reasons for its ruling; one ground—which had been presented in the motion to dismiss—was plaintiff’s failure to comply with Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.070(j), requiring service of complaint within 20 days of filing. Noting that dismissal on that basis would be reviewed for abuse of discretion, and that the Court would “likely find no abuse of discretion on the record before us,” the Court nonetheless reversed, explaining that “there is no indication in the record or the briefs that the trial court was inclined to exercise its discretion to dismiss [the complaint] under Rule 1.070(j).”  The Court concluded that since the “matter is one left to the trial court’s discretion, we cannot say definitively that the trial court reached the right result, but for the wrong reasons.”

Three Things to Consider for your Tipsy Coachman Argument

If you are writing an appellee’s brief and believe an alternate basis for affirmance exists, it is wise to do three things:

  • First, unless the alternate basis for affirmance is purely legal, specifically identify the evidentiary basis supporting the alternate theory—and if the alternate basis is purely legal, be sure to identify the record filings supporting the legal argument.
  • Second, brief your tipsy coachman argument (don’t wait/hope for oral argument to raise it or rely on the appellate court to invoke the doctrine for you).
  • Third, be mindful of presenting your alternate theory of affirmance without ‘criticizing’ the trial judge’s primary reasoning.

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