Fourth District Court of Appeal Addresses Harmless Error Rule in Auto Accident Decision

photo_1831_20060728One of the most common arguments on appeal following a trial is whether evidence was erroneously presented to the jury. Although inappropriate evidence can affect a jury’s determination, appeals courts are wary to allow a new trial in every case that involves an evidentiary ruling with which it disagrees. Accordingly, the “harmless error rule” limits overturning a jury verdict to only those situations when the evidence is shown to have had some material impact on the jury’s ruling. Courts have different standards for harmless error, and the Supreme Court of Florida recently clarified its pre-existing harmless error jurisprudence for civil cases in Special v. West Boca Medical Center. In West Boca, which arose from the appeal of a Fourth District Court of Appeal decision, the Supreme Court of Florida held that harmless error in civil cases requires that “the beneficiary of the error must prove that there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict.” 39 Fla. L. Weekly S676 (Fla. Nov. 13, 2014). The Fourth District previously applied a “more likely than not” standard for harmless error and has been forced to revise several of its decisions in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Among these decisions is Hurtado v. DeSouza, which involved prejudicial evidence introduced in an automobile accident trial.

The plaintiff in Hurtado filed suit after being rear-ended by another driver while stopped at a traffic light. Prior to trial, the defendant stipulated to liability, leaving only causation and damages to be determined by the jury. At trial, the plaintiff’s attorney stated in his opening statement that immediately following the accident the defendant didn’t check in on the plaintiff or apologize. The defendant’s counsel called for a sidebar with the judge, who ruled that the statement could be admitted. Afterward, the plaintiff’s counsel made another statement on the defendant’s possible effort to flee, to which the defense counsel objected. A third comment was subsequently made, and the defendant’s counsel moved for a mistrial or a curative instruction to the jury, both of which the trial court denied. In his testimony, the plaintiff noted the defendant’s failure to check on him or his family and the defendant’s desire to leave the scene of the accident. The trial judge permitted the testimony but ultimately directed a verdict in favor of the defendant on the plaintiff’s mental anguish claims. Following the directed verdict, the trial judge read a curative instruction to the jury, directing them to ignore references to the defendant’s failure to admit negligence sooner as irrelevant given the court’s determination on mental anguish damages. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict for over one million dollars for permanent injury. The defendant appealed the jury verdict.

The Fourth District originally affirmed the jury verdict, but following the Supreme Court’s ruling in West Boca, the Fourth District vacated its previous decision. As an initial matter, the Fourth District noted that the comments are prejudicial because “evidence concerning liability is irrelevant and prejudicial when . . . the defendant admits entire responsibility for the accident and only the amount of damages remains to be decided” Metro. Dade Cnty. v. Cox, 453 So. 2d 1171, 1172-73 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984) (internal citations omitted). The court also noted Florida’s long-standing rule that references to a party’s wealth should not be made because of the possibly prejudicial effect. See, e.g., Sossa v. Newman, 647 So. 2d 1018, 1019-20 (Fla. 4th DCA 1994). The Fourth District acknowledged that this was a relatively minor car accident that should not generally command recovery for over a million dollars, especially considering the jury knew that many of the plaintiff’s symptoms were preexisting and considering the judge’s ruling with respect to the mental anguish claims. Accordingly, the Fourth District ruled that the plaintiff did not show that there was no reasonable possibility that the comments had an effect on the jury’s verdict.

As the Fourth District’s revised opinion indicates, the Supreme Court’s clarification of the standard for harmless error will have a meaningful impact on appeals court determinations in evidentiary rulings moving forward. Indeed, the standard is broader, and many litigants will consequently have a better chance at getting a second bite at the apple. Although it will benefit certain plaintiffs, the standard will also be an advantage for many defendants seeking a reversal of plaintiff-friendly verdicts. Given the assortment of intricate evidentiary issues that can arise both at trial and on appeal, someone considering bringing a legal action for injuries should deeply consider finding competent counsel prior to filing his or her case. The South Florida car accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented many injured South Floridians and are ready to help you with a possible case. Feel free to contact us for a free case consultation to tell us about your possible claim and explore your options for relief.

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