Florida Court Reverses Defense Jury Verdict Based on Prejudicial and Conflicting Evidentiary Rulings

Earlier this month, a Florida appellate court issued a written opinion in a personal injury case brought against a woman who developed lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The Florida personal injury lawsuit was filed against the manufacturer of the cigarettes to which the woman claimed she became addicted, which subsequently caused her illness. The case required the appellate court to review the evidentiary rulings made by the lower court and determine if they were proper. Ultimately, the court concluded that the rulings below were not proper and necessitated that the plaintiff be granted a new trial.

AshtrayThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff’s claim against the defendant was that she became addicted to the defendant’s cigarettes and as a result of that addiction developed lung cancer and COPD. During trial, the plaintiff called the pulmonologist who treated her over the years to establish that she was addicted to cigarettes. However, when the defendant objected to the question of whether the pulmonologist thought the plaintiff was addicted to cigarettes, the court sustained the objection, finding that he was not qualified to offer his opinion about any potential addiction.

Later in the trial, when it was the defendant’s turn to cross-examine the pulmonologist, the defense attorney asked whether, in the pulmonologist’s opinion, the plaintiff could have stopped smoking whenever she became “sufficiently motivated to do so.” The plaintiff unsuccessfully objected, and the pulmonologist was permitted to answer in the affirmative.

During closing arguments, the defense relied heavily on the pulmonologist’s opinion that the plaintiff could quit whenever she was motivated to do so, arguing that the cause of the plaintiff’s illnesses was not her addiction but was a result of a personal choice to smoke. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that the trial court made conflicting evidentiary rulings. Specifically, the plaintiff argued that if the pulmonologist was not able to offer his opinion that the plaintiff was addicted to cigarettes, he should not have been permitted to offer his opinion about whether she should stop smoking.

The appellate court agreed, finding that the question of whether a person can stop smoking requires evidence of non-addiction. The court explained that since the trial court determined that the pulmonologist was not qualified to testify regarding whether the plaintiff was addicted, it was improper to allow him to testify that she was not addicted.

The next step in the court’s analysis considered whether the trial court’s error was harmful to the plaintiff’s case. Here, the court found the error harmful because the error allowed the defense to effectively use the plaintiff’s own witness against her in its closing argument to the jury. As a result, the court remanded the case back to the trial court so that it can conduct a new trial.

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See Additional Blog Posts:

Assumption of the Risk in Florida Personal Injury Cases, South Florida Injury Attorneys Blog, June 14, 2017.

Liability under Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine, South Florida Injury Attorneys Blog, July 5, 2017.