reversible error

Trial Court’s Error is Harmless when there is No Reasonable Possibility Error Contributed to Verdict

Posted by David Adelstein on May 04, 2016
Appeal, Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Trial Court’s Error is Harmless when there is No Reasonable Possibility Error Contributed to Verdict

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Just because the trial court committed an error does NOT mean the error constitutes reversible error warranting a new trial. The trial court’s error could very well be harmless error.

When it comes to a trial court’s error, the recipient of the error should prove that “there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict.” Maines v. Fox, 41 Fla.L.Weekly D1062a (Fla. 1st DCA 2016) quoting Special v. W. Boca Med. Ctr., 160 So.3d 1251, 1256-57 (Fla. 2014). The trial court’s error is harmless if the recipient of the error proves there is no reasonable possibility that the trial court’s error contributed to the jury’s verdict.

In Maines, the trial court abused its discretion by preventing a defense expert from testifying that in his opinion the plaintiff did not suffer a traumatic injury as the result of the car accident. However, the defense expert was able to testify that only a very fragile person could have sustained a traumatic injury like plaintiff’s injury from the car accident. Hence, while the expert could not specifically testify that the plaintiff did not suffer the injury from the car accident, his other opinions clearly portrayed his causation opinion to the jury. For this reason, the First District held that while the trial court did commit an error, the error was nothing more than a harmless error–there was no reasonable possibility that this error contributed to the jury’s verdict in favor of the plaintiff.

 

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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Incorrect / Misleading Jury Instructions and Reversible Error

Posted by David Adelstein on February 27, 2016
Jury Instructions / Comments Off on Incorrect / Misleading Jury Instructions and Reversible Error

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I have discussed the importance of jury instructions. Time should be taken crafting applicable jury instructions based on the law to discuss during the charging conference where the judge determines the jury instructions to read to the jury. What happens if a court reads a misleading and incorrect jury instruction? Final judgment may be reversed and a new trial ordered–reversible error!

In a first-party property insurance coverage dispute, the court read a jury instruction relating to the insured and insurer’s burden of proof. The jury instruction, however, was confusing and contained an incorrect burden of proof for the insurer. As a result, the jury found in favor of the insured and a final judgment was rendered. The Second District reversed the final judgment because the burden of proof jury instruction was misleading and incorrect potentially leading the jury to reach a conclusion it might not have reached had the jury instruction not been misleading and incorrect. Citizens Property insurance Corp. v. Salkey, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D509a (Fla. 2d DCA 2016); see also Allstate Ins. Co. v. Vanater, 297 So.2d 293 (Fla. 2000) (explaining that an erroneous jury instruction concerning the burden of proof is reversible error because it could lead the jury to reach a conclusion it might not have reached had the jury instruction been correct).

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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Recipient of Trial Court’s Error Needs to Prove Harmless Error

Posted by David Adelstein on November 05, 2015
Evidence / Comments Off on Recipient of Trial Court’s Error Needs to Prove Harmless Error

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I previously discussed that the “no reasonable possibility test” is the harmless error test in civil trials. This means that even if the trial judge committed an error, the recipient of the error (generally the appellee) has to prove that the error was harmless in that there was no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict (against the appellant).

Here is a case where the trial court committed error but the appellee that prevailed at trial was unable to establish that the error was harmless. Thus, the error committed by the trial court was deemed to be reversible error entitling the appellant (losing party) to a new trial.

In Maniglia v. Carpenter, 40 Fla. L. Weekly D2485c (Fla. 3d DCA 2015), the plaintiff sued the defendant over injuries sustained in a car accident.   Less than a month after the accident, the plaintiff was involved in a golf tournament where he got inebriated and drove the golf car into the street, collided with a car, fell off the golf cart, and then got into a physical altercation with the police.   The defendant naturally wanted to introduce these events during trial for multiple reasons. First, the defendant wanted to establish that the plaintiff never told his treating chiropractor about these events, which could have affected the plaintiff’s credibility to the jury. And, second, these other events could have served as a jury instruction relating to other intervening causes for the plaintiff’s injuries.

The trial court granted a motion in limine finding that these events were unfairly prejudicial to the plaintiff. As a result, the jury never heard the true nature of the events and a verdict was entered against the defendant.

On appeal, the appellate court held that it was error for the trial court to exclude this evidence since the evidence was probative and was not outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Based on this error, the appellate court held that the plaintiff was required to prove that the error was harmless – there was no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the jury’s verdict. The plaintiff, however, was unable to meet this burden meaning that the defendant was entitled to a new trial.

 

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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Harmless Error and the “No Reasonable Possibility” Test

Posted by David Adelstein on February 07, 2015
Appeal, Burden of Proof / Comments Off on Harmless Error and the “No Reasonable Possibility” Test

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The terms “harmless error” and “reversible error” are well known terms in the trial and appellate world. In a nutshell, a harmless error is an error committed by the trial judge that does NOT impact the fairness of the trial; a reversible error is an error that does impact the fairness of the trial. 

A party appealing a trial judge’s ruling (appellant) aims to establish that the trial judge’s ruling, etc. amounted to reversible error. The party responding to the appeal (appellee) aims to establish that there was no error, but if there was, it was harmless. If an error amounts to reversible error, it could result in a new trial or even a reversal of the judgment.

Florida Statute s. 59.041 explains the harmless error standard:

No judgment shall be set aside or reversed, or new trial granted by any court of the state in any cause, civil or criminal, on the ground of misdirection of the jury or the improper admission or rejection of evidence or for error as to any matter of pleading or procedure, unless in the opinion of the court to which application is made, after an examination of the entire case it shall appear that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice. This section shall be liberally construed.

However, what impacts a fair trial and results in a “miscarriage of justice” has long been established on a case-by-case basis. This, however, has led to uncertainty as to how to specifically define a harmless error–an error that does not result in a miscarriage of justice / the right to a fair trial–in civil matters. In other words, when does an error result in miscarriage of justice and when does it not and whose burden is it to establish the harmless error?

The Florida Supreme Court in Special v. West Boca Medical Center, 2014 WL 5856384 (Fla. 2014) addressed this exact issue in ruling that the “no reasonable possibility” test is the harmless error test to be applied to civil trials:

To test for harmless error, the beneficiary of the error [appellee] has the burden to prove that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict. Alternatively stated, the beneficiary of the error [appellee] must prove that there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict.

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[T]he application of the no reasonable possibility test for harmless error in civil appeals will serve multiple purposes. The test acts in a manner so as to conserve judicial resources while protecting the integrity of the process. Additionally, the test strikes the proper balance between the parties. While the party that seeks relief  [appellant] must still identify the error and raise the issue before the appellate court, this test properly places the burden of proving harmless error on the beneficiary of the error [appellee]. Requiring the beneficiary of the error to demonstrate that there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict discourages efforts to introduce error into the proceedings.

Special, supra, at *4, 5.

Thus, under the “no reasonable possibility” test: (1) a harmless error is an error in which there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict and (2) the party responding to the appeal (appellee) has the burden to establish that the error was harmless.

 

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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