compensatory damages

Prejudicial Closing Argument Could Result in Mistrial / New Trial

Posted by David Adelstein on March 27, 2016
Standard of Review, Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Prejudicial Closing Argument Could Result in Mistrial / New Trial

 

Closing argument is a very, very important part of jury trials to sum up the evidence in the context / theme of your case based on the applicable law. It is your last opportunity to talk directly to the jury about the theme of your case. Check out this article for the purpose of closing argument.

While lawyers are afforded latitude in presenting closing argument, improper and prejudicial argument could result in an appellate court granting a new trial. The opposing party must, however, timely object to the improper and prejudicial argument in order to properly preserve this objection for appeal. This is typically done at the time of the prejudicial argument with the opposing counsel moving the trial judge to declare a mistrial. See R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Gafney, 41 Fla.L.Weekly D744b (Fla. 4th DCA 2016) quoting Engle v. Liggett Grp., Inc., 945 So.2d 1246, 1271 (Fla. 2006) (“If the issue of an opponent’s improper argument has been properly preserved by objection and motion for mistrial, the trial court should grant a new trial if the argument was ‘so highly prejudicial and inflammatory that it denied the opposing party its right to a fair trial.”). The standard of review on appeal for a motion for a mistrial or new trial based on improper closing is an abuse of discretion standard of review. Gafney, supra.

In Gafney, a wrongful death case against tobacco manufacturers, the plaintiff’s lawyers made improper comments to the jury asking the jury to “send a message” to the tobacco companies through their compensatory damage award in the verdict. The plaintiff’s lawyers also insinuated in closing argument that the defendant’s lawyers were involved in a conspiracy to cover-up the addictive nature of smoking cigarettes.

“Sending a Message” Closing Argument

 

The Fourth District held that “sending a message” argument is inappropriate when asking the jury to send a message with respect to compensatory damages (since this is the purpose of punitive damages and not compensatory damages):

 

“Send a message” arguments have been defined as those that ask a jury to “award money not based on the proof supporting the proper recoverable damages allowed in a wrongful death action, but to remedy wrongful, intentional, as opposed to negligent, conduct,” and those that “suggest[ ] to the jury that a significant verdict will send a message to stop [such] experiences from happening and will make others less likely to act irresponsibly.” The overwhelming weight of Florida jurisprudence informs us that “send a message” arguments are clearly inappropriate when utilized in a way that links the “sending of the message” to a compensatory damage award, and not to the entitlement to, or amount of, punitive damages.

***

Exhorting a jury with a “call to action” to use its verdict to “speak loud and speak clear” via a compensatory damage award, as was done repeatedly here, is improper. … However, today we clarify that even when both claims are at issue, a plaintiff may not utilize “send a message” and conscience of the community arguments when discussing whether the plaintiff should be compensated, due to the potential for the jury to punish through the compensatory award. Appellee’s counsel’s comments in this case served only to divert the jurors’ attention from the proper consideration.

Gafney, supra (internal citation omitted).

Ad Hominem Attack on Opposing Counsel

 

The Fourth District also held that closing argument that insinuated that defendant’s counsel was involved in a conspiracy was inappropriate. Closing argument is not intended to attack an opposing counsel for being part of an improper scheme:

There is no question that appellee’s counsel went outside the broad parameters of permissible closing argument when he turned his commentary on opposing counsel. These statements were totally irrelevant to the issue of appellants’ liability. The insinuation that appellants’ attorneys were engaged in a conspiracy with either the defendants or third parties to mislead, conceal, or manipulate as part of an on-going scheme did not merely push the envelope, but instead went wholly beyond the pale.

***

Accusations of wrongdoing by opposing counsel, such as those made in this case, would likely be improper even if made solely to a judge. Here, the comments achieved no other purpose than to discredit appellants’ attorneys in the eyes of the jury, planting in the juror’s minds the thought that the attorneys themselves were engaged in nefarious behind-the-scenes acts….

Gafney, supra.

In another example, you can check out this article for improper closing argument leading to a new trial in a trial against an insurance company.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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