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probative value

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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Introducing Character Evidence of Prior Bad Acts in a Civil Case

Posted by David Adelstein on June 07, 2015
Evidence / Comments Off on Introducing Character Evidence of Prior Bad Acts in a Civil Case

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Relevant evidence is evidence tending to prove or disprove a material fact.” Fla.Stat. s. 90.401. I have previously discussed that evidence needs to be relevant for it to be admissible but that not all relevant evidence is admissible (e.g., if the probative value of that evidence is outweighed by unfair prejudice, etc., then the relevant evidence is not admissible).

When is evidence of a person’s character ever relevant (such as the character of a plaintiff or defendant) to prove or disprove a material fact in a civil case? Generally speaking, it is not relevant and, even if it was relevant, the probative value is probably outweighed by the evidence’s unfair prejudice.

In the civil context, really, the only time character evidence would be relevant if it falls under an exception in Florida Statute s. 90.404(2)(a) that provides:

“Similar fact evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is admissible when relevant to prove a material fact in issue, including, but not limited to, proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident, but it is inadmissible when the evidence is relevant solely to prove bad character or propensity.”

This exception refers to what is known as “prior acts” or “prior bad acts” evidence. But, when would prior bad acts come into play in a civil case? Specifically, when would introducing evidence of prior wrongs or bad acts by a party be admissible in a civil case to prove “proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identify, or absence of mistake?” And, even if an argument could be made for the relevancy of character evidence, wouldn’t the probative value of this evidence be outweighed by the evidence’s unfair prejudice?  

Here is an example where character evidence was improperly admitted warranting a new trial for a defendant in a civil case.

In Jacobs v. Atlantic Coast Refining, Inc., 2015 WL 2214140 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015), a man hired his girlfriend as a bookkeeper for his company and authorized her to sign checks on behalf of his company. Apparently, the girlfriend wrote hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks to herself or to pay off her credit card.   After the couple broke up, the man argued his former girlfriend embezzled company funds and sued his former girlfriend for claims including civil theft and conversion. The man wanted to introduce evidence reflecting that this wasn’t the first time his former girlfriend embezzled a company’s funds–prior acts evidence. During the former girlfriend’s first marriage, she worked for her husband’s medical office. After the divorce, the ex-husband filed a post-dissolution motion regarding her embezzlement of his company’s funds that was later resolved. In other words, based on the allegations in a motion, she was accused of doing the same thing to her ex-husband’s company that the man asserted she did to his company. The man wanted to introduce the post-dissolution motion in his trial under Florida Statute s. 90.404 to show his former girlfriend’s “knowledge, preparation, plan and identity.” Although the former girlfriend moved in limine to exclude this evidence, the judge denied the motion, and the former girlfriend was questioned about the contents of the post-dissolution motion involving her former husband. The jury entered a verdict for the man against his former girlfriend that was reduced to a judgment by the trial court and the former girlfriend appealed.

The appeal was focused on the trial court allowing the man’s counsel to ask the former girlfriend questions about the contents of the post-dissolution motion. The only reason to do so was to show that the former girlfriend had the bad character and propensity to commit the embezzlement in this case based on her prior bad acts. Remember, character evidence is inadmissible solely to prove bad character or propensity.  The appellate court held that questioning the former girlfriend about the post-dissolution motion amounted to improper character evidence. Further, the appellate court held that even if this evidence was relevant by falling within an exception under Florida Statute s. 90.404(2)(a) to prove more than just bad character or propensity, any probative value of this evidence was outweighed by unfair prejudice deeming this evidence inadmissible.

 

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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