Tales of the tipsy coachman: being right for the wrong reason: the tipsy coachman is alive and well and living in Florida.

AuthorHerb, James A.

'[I] a trial court reaches the right result, but for the wrong reasons, it will be upheld if there is any basis which would support the judgment in the record." (1) This is a simple statement of the "tipsy coachman" rule or doctrine. This doctrine, which has become a stable part of appellate practice, decreases the likelihood that an appellant will fare well in an appeal. Application of the doctrine, nevertheless, is not nearly so pedestrian. The Tipsy Coachman Doctrine

The first legal reference to the tipsy coachman appeared in the 1879 opinion of the Georgia Supreme Court in Lee v. Porter, 63 Ga. 345 (1879), which states the rationale underlying the doctrine:

It may be that we would draw very different inferences [than those drawn by the trial judge], and these differences might go to uphold the judgment; for many steps in the reasoning of the court below might be defective, and still its ultimate conclusion be correct. It 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. 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. (2)

The opinion proceeds to quote the following passage from Oliver Goldsmith's 1774 poem, "Retaliation":

"The pupil of impulse, it forc'd him along,

"His conduct still right, with his argument wrong;

"Still aiming at honour, yet fearing to roam,

"The coachman was tipsy, the chariot drove home[.]" (3)

Development of the Doctrine in Florida "[A] rose [b]y any other name ...." (4)

In 1857, the Florida Supreme Court stated: "This Court will always gladly avail itself of the light which may be furnished by the reasoning of the Court below, but when it comes to decide, it has to do only with the conclusions as they are embodied in the judgment or decree--the logic of the [j]udge is beyond its control." (5)

Over a stretch of succeeding years, the court stated this principle in various ways: "If the ruling is correct, it will not be disturbed because the court may have given a wrong or insufficient reason for its rendition." (6) "A correct ruling of the trial court will not be disturbed because of erroneous or wrong reasons which may have been given therefor, as it is with the ruling itself, and not with the reasons given therefor, with which an appellate court is concerned." (7) "It is the ruling itself, and not the reasons therefor, which determines the correctness of a court's action." (8)

The Tipsy Coachman Appears in Florida

Although the Florida Supreme Court had recognized the principles that would become the tipsy coachman doctrine as early as 1857, the hackney quotation from Goldsmith did not appear in a Florida appellate opinion until the 1963 Supreme Court case of Carraway v. Armour & Co., 156 So. 2d 494, 497 (Fla. 1963). (9) The use of the colorful moniker "tipsy coachman" was first documented by Judge Cowart in his dissent to a 1984 opinion from the Fifth District Court of Appeal, (10) and the phrase has subsequently appeared in more than 80 Florida appellate opinions. Aside from Florida, however, the phrase "tipsy coachman rule" or "tipsy coachman doctrine" exists in only a handful of opinions in Georgia and Oregon. (11)

This is not to say that the "tipsy coachman doctrine"--that is, the affirming of a decision if it is right, even if for the wrong reason--is not applied in other states. It generally is. Similarly, many Florida appellate opinions have applied the doctrine without using the phrase "tipsy coachman doctrine" by using the phrase "right for the wrong reason," (12) or by simply citing to a case which applies the doctrine. (13) Florida appellate courts started using the phrase "right for wrong reason" in 1979 (14) and have used the phrase in more than 70 opinions since.

The tipsy coachman doctrine has become an "elementary" principle of appellate law. (15) The doctrine is based on the premise that the record is the "roadmap" for both the trial and appellate courts, and different routes can lead to the same destination. (16) The point of this article is to identify the facts and circumstances--or twists and turns--identified in Florida appellate opinions through which the coachman must navigate in order to arrive home.

Florida Supreme Court Restates the Rule of the Road

The Florida Supreme Court issued its first opinion using the phrase "tipsy coachman" in Dade County School Board v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So. 2d 638 (Fla. 1999): In some circumstances, even though a trial court's ruling is based on improper reasoning, the ruling will be upheld if there is any theory or principle of law in the record which would support the ruling. In In re Estate of Yohn, this Court stated:

"It is elementary that the theories or reasons assigned by the lower court as its basis for the order or judgment appealed from, although sometimes helpful, are not in any way controlling on appeal and the [a]ppellate [c]ourt will make its own determination as to the correctness of the decision of the lower court, regardless of the reasons or theories assigned therefor."

238 So. 2d 290, 295 (Fla. 1970). Stated another way...

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