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Staying Inbounds at Trial – TT of Indian River v. Fortson

In my experience as a trial lawyer, it is often times difficult for the parties of a lawsuit to understand the restrictive nature of the rules of evidence. There are narrow guidelines by which attorneys must conduct themselves when arguing to a jury. If a lawyer steps out-of-bounds during trial, his client’s favorable verdict might be overturned by an appellate court.

Such was the case in TT of Indian River v. Fortson, a recent appellate decision issued by Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal. In TT of Indian River, the plaintiff in a personal injury automobile accident case received a favorable jury verdict. However, due to some remarks made by her trial attorney, that verdict was overturned.

The TT of Indian River case involved a Defendant who admitted full liability for causing the automobile accident shortly before trial. This is a common defense tactic – to fight liability during discovery, then admit it on the eve of trial. Undoubtedly frustrated by the timing of Defendant’s liability admission, the Plaintiff’s counsel in the subject case called as a witness the Defendant’s corporate representative. He then proceeded to question the corporate representative on liability issues for causing the crash and the timing of the Defendant’s liability admission.

Prior to trial, the Defendant’s counsel had filed a Motion to Quash the Plaintiff’s subpoena for the corporate representative’s trial testimony. The Defendant argued that the corporate representative did not witness the crash nor was she involved, so her testimony could provide no relevant data on the damages to the Plaintiff. The trial court denied the Motion to Quash, and the corporate representative was forced to testify. That ruling alone was reversible error, per the Fifth District.

The Fifth District appellate court further elucidated the reasoning behind its decision to overturn the verdict. It explained that during direct examination of the corporate representative, the Plaintiff’s counsel asked numerous questions not related to the only issue in dispute: the Plaintiff’s damages. Specifically, plaintiff’s counsel asked about Mercedes-Benz’s admission of “guilt”, brought to light the fact that the Defendant did not admit to liability until 2016 even though the accident occurred in 2012, and went into other questions regarding plaintiff being “totally innocent” and the corporate representative’s failure to properly investigate the automobile crash. The appellate court noted these questions elucidated no relevant evidence and were meant only to inflame the jury.

In further supporting its opinion, the Fifth District noted that it is well-held law that “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.” The court also noted that it is improper to use the terms “guilt” and “innocence” in a civil trial on negligence.

After establishing that the trial court committed error, the appellate court held that the error was not harmless. It noted that virtually the entire questioning and testimony of the Defendant’s corporate representative was inadmissible, irrelevant and inflammatory. Moreover, the plaintiff’s counsel used that impermissible evidence as part of his closing argument, making it even more prevalent in the jury’s mind. The verdict was thus reversed and remanded for a new trial on damages.

The recent trend of appellate courts is to overturn verdicts based on impermissible evidence and remarks made by attorneys. It is important that the parties to a lawsuit understand that provocative comments meant only to inflame a jury are not allowed.

At The Grife Law Firm, we are proud to be of service to those seriously injured due to car accidents, truck crashes, medical malpractice and slip and fall accidents. Call our Boca Raton office for a free consultation.