The term is mostly used in Florida cases, though it has also been mentioned in Oregon, Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia; it seems to have first appeared in Lee v. Porter, 63 Ga. 345 (1879), but is used to this day in Florida, with at least 15 references in 2013 alone. It simply means that an appellate court may affirm a lower court’s correct bottom-line decision even if the lower court reached it for the wrong reasons.
On the other hand, there are limits to this principle; here’s an excerpt from State v. McHenry, 134 P.3d 1016 (Or. Ct. App. 2006):
[O]ne condition for applying the “right for the wrong reason” or “tipsy coachman” doctrine is that the record be materially the same one that would have been developed had the prevailing party raised the alternative basis for affirmance below. “In other words, even if the record contains evidence sufficient to support an alternative basis for affirmance, if the losing party might have created a different record below had the prevailing party raised that issue, and that record could affect the disposition of the issue, then we will not consider the alternative basis for affirmance.”
And here’s some more from Rodriguez v. Farm Stores Grocery, Inc., 518 F.3d 1259 (11th Cir. 2008) (paragraph break added):
Insisting that the jury’s damages verdict, even if it cannot be explained under the district court’s instruction, is consistent with the evidence and the DOL’s interpretive bulletin, the store managers argue that we should apply the “right for the wrong reasons” principle and affirm the district court’s order. At oral argument, counsel for the store managers directed us to a line of Florida cases applying that principle, which is also known by the delightful title of the “tipsy coachman” doctrine, to the review of judicial rulings and decisions.
We are all for rules that promote judicial economy and efficiency, but even assuming that the doctrine can be applied to jury verdicts, it cannot save the one in this case. The record in this case reminds us less of a tipsy coachman arriving at the right destination than of a blind one who ends up at the wrong place.
[Footnote:] The first time the Florida courts used that name ["'tipsy coachman doctrine"] was in Carraway v. Armour & Co., 156 So.2d 494 (Fla.1963), where the Florida Supreme Court quoted from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “Retaliation,” these lines:
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 ….
Id. at 497. The Georgia Supreme Court had quoted the same poem for the same rule of law more than eighty years before. See Lee v. Porter, 63 Ga. 345 (1879).