When appealing a trial decided by a judge (as opposed to a jury), an appeals court will usually only reverse the trial judge’s judgement if there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law. Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. 1976). These are three distinct legal bases for challenging a judgement on appeal, though they are often mistakenly meshed together.
A contention that there is no substantial evidence to support the trial court’s decision or that it is against the weight of the evidence involves reviewing the trial court’s factual determinations. An appellate court will overturn a trial court’s judgement under these fact-based standards only when there is a firm belief that the judgement is wrong. Pearson v. Koster, 367 S.W.3d 36, 43 (Mo. 2012). As a practical matter, it is very difficult to prevail on these arguments because appellate courts legally defer to a trial court’s factual determinations — in part because the trial judge is there and in person during the trial to directly evaluate and weigh the credibility of the evidence.
Assuming there is a tenable basis for making an argument, a claim that the judgement erroneously declares or applies the law will generally have a better chance of success. This does not involve re-determining any factual determinations, but, instead, focuses on the review of the propriety of the trial court’s construction and application of the law. Id.
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