New Trial Warranted for Prejudicially Inflaming the Jury
Jury trials do contain a degree of theatrics, particularly when it comes to opening and closing statements. The objective is to persuasively demonstrate to the jury your theme of the dispute – what the evidence will show (in the opening statement) and what the evidence reveals that supports your theme and the application of the law (in the closing statement). This does not mean, however, that you can intentionally and prejudicially inflame the passions of the jury. Doing so will result in a new trial, and oftentimes, an unnecessary new trial.
An example of this can be found in the case TT of Indian River, Inc. v. Fortson, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D2655a (Fla. 5th DCA 2017). This case involved an automobile accident where liability had been stipulated. The defendant was not interested in trying the liability of the case. The jury trial was ONLY as to damages. Liability was therefore irrelevant. Nonetheless, at trial, the plaintiff’s counsel, over the objection of the defense, called a corporate representative of the defendant and inquired as to issues concerning liability to create the perception that the defendant engaged in indifference and misconduct regarding the underlying automobile accident. The plaintiff also used the term of “guilt” to describe the defendant’s stipulation as to liability and the term of “innocence” to describe the plaintiff’s conduct. After a final judgment was rendered against the defendant in accordance with the jury’ verdict, the defendant appealed for a new trial on damages. The appellate court agreed reversing the final judgment and mandating a new trial on damages due to conduct designed to inflame the jury.
When a defendant admits the entire responsibility for an accident and only the amount of damages is at issue, evidence regarding liability is irrelevant and prejudicial. Moreover, as this court has recognized, it is improper to refer to “guilt” or “innocence” at a civil trial on negligence.
Fortson, supra (internal quotations and citations omitted).
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