No judicial notice for a law of physics, but for a different reason than you might expect

I had to take the “high track” physics courses as part of my electrical engineering major curriculum at Canoe U. In fact, I liked my physics classes more than my engineering classes, and regret to this day I did not major in physics. So the discussion in Bermudez v. Ciolek, case no. G049510 (2d Dist., June 22, 2015), in which the court refuses to take judicial notice of a law of physics, caught my eye.

Bermudez is an automobile accident case, in which defendant Ciolek was the driver of a car that collided with a second car driven by defendant Heacox, which in turn struck plaintiff, who was on the sidewalk. Though the jury found both drivers negligent, it found only Ciolek liable for plaintiff’s damages.

Ciolek contended on appeal that these findings were inconsistent, i.e., that Heacox’s neglignce must have been a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injuries because, absent such negligence, the second vehicle’s ricochet would have been different. Ciolek contended, in the words of the court, that the jury’s findings were irreconcilable “because they ignore the laws of physics by which our universe is governed.”

In support, Ciolek requested that the court take judicial notice of the law of conservation of momentum. Here is an apparent excerpt from Ciolek’s brief, which attached equations and examples:

The law of conservation of momentum provides that in a collision, momentum is conserved; the combined momentum of two colliding objects going into the collision must equal the momentum coming out of it. The momentum of an object equals its mass multiplied by its velocity; velocity is a vector, which in turn is composed of both speed and direction.

Here is a simple demonstration of the principle:

Instinctively, how this principle would have affected the collision sounds like expert witness territory to me. Sure enough, the lack of expert testimony on the issue at trial plays a part in the court’s decision not to take judicial notice, but the basis for its ruling is far more fundamental and needs to be kept in mind by every appellant . . . and you don’t need to know a lick of physics to understand it:

Ciolek’s argument is certainly interesting. Of course, it is not the argument she made at trial. At trial, she claimed Heacox was the sole cause of the collision (and therefore the harm to Bermudez). Ciolek did not ask the trial court to take judicial notice of the law of conservation of momentum and to instruct the jury on its meaning. Ciolek did not ask her accident reconstruction expert to evaluate and opine on the effect of Heacox’s speed on the ricochet. [Footnote.] Faced with a result she did not expect (though it was consistent with the result requested by Bermudez’s counsel and Heacox’s counsel in their closing arguments), Ciolek now suggests the jury reached an illogical verdict based on the supposed common sense of the law of conservation of momentum.

We reject Ciolek’s request to essentially retry the case on appeal and we deny her request for judicial notice as irrelevant to the issues before us. “It is a firmly entrenched principle of appellate practice that litigants must adhere to the theory on which a case was tried. Stated otherwise, a litigant may not change his or her position on appeal and assert a new theory. To permit this change in strategy would be unfair to the trial court and the opposing litigant.” (Brown v. Boren (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 1303, 1316.) It would be fundamentally unfair to both Heacox and Bermudez to grant a retrial to Ciolek because she wants the chance to try a different theory the second time around.

In short, shifting gears at the appellate level is not allowed. It’s surprising that Ciolek would make an argument like this, given that the appellate court did not even deem this a close call.