Articles Posted in Juries

In American legal culture, the determinations of juries are afforded considerable deference. Nevertheless, juries do make mistakes, and courts then must step in and order new trials in the interest of justice. However, those who benefit from an initial jury’s ruling are generally not amenable to a trial court ordering a new trial. Indeed, the propriety of a trial court order directing that there be a new trial was at the center of Botta v. Florida Power & Light Co., a recent decision from Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal that involved a collision between an FPL truck and the vehicle of another motorist.

The events at issue in Botta were set in course by a nighttime power outage. After receiving a report of the outage, FPL sent out a truck to investigate. The technician sent to investigate the outage parked his truck along the side of a road but did not set up any reflective markers behind the truck to indicate its presence. In addition, there was disputed evidence as to whether the truck’s warning lights had been activated. Some time after the technician parked, a car being operated by the plaintiff in this case collided with the truck. The plaintiff testified that he believed the truck was in motion at the time of the accident and that he attempted to brake prior to the collision. However, a witness to the accident testified that he did not see the car decelerate before the collision. In addition, there was a dispute of fact regarding whether the headlights of the plaintiff’s vehicle were illuminated at the time of the accident. The plaintiff was severely injured as a result of the crash and needed to have his arm amputated.

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It’s a subject we have mentioned on several occasions, but it’s one that bears repeating. Even a single error can be damaging to a case, or lead to wasteful and duplicative effort for all involved. Indeed, as the defendants in a recent case before Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, Soto v. McCulley Marine Servs., Inc., now know, litigants should endeavor to get things right the first time because even if an error works in your favor, it may ultimately just lead to wasted effort.

McCulley began with a drowning that occurred on Independence Day 2009. In 2009, Manatee County had a program to create artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. The program involved considerable amounts of concrete debris on other materials. Accordingly, the county set up a staging area at the southeastern end of Anna Maria Island, adjacent to Coquina Beach and Bayside Park. The area is popular for visitors, especially those who enjoy water sports. The defendants in this case were enlisted by the county to help build the reef.  In 2009, Independence Day fell on a Saturday, and the defendants did not wish to work over the holiday weekend. Accordingly, the captain of a tugboat involved in the project moored the tugboat and its barge adjacent to a dock in the staging area. On Independence Day, the decedent was operating a jet ski near the tugboat and barge. During his journey, the jet ski stalled.  The tidal currents were particularly strong, and the decedent became separated from the jet ski. His friends came to assist him, but the decedent drowned. His body was found under the tugboat.

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Although the end of a trial often means finality, seasoned litigators understand that, at least in some cases, it may simply be a precursor to protracted appellate battles. Indeed, a favorable ruling for a plaintiff is often not secure, for dissatisfied defendants will often take the case to an appellate court, seeking reversal on any ground possible. As the plaintiff in Ortega v. Belony, a recent case before Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, now knows, a trial court victory is often just the beginning.

Ortega arose from a motor vehicle accident in Miami-Dade County. As a result of the collision, the driver of one of the vehicles involved, who is the plaintiff in this case, suffered a broken neck. The plaintiff was hospitalized for eight days following the accident. Rather than undergoing surgery to repair the injury, the plaintiff elected to wear a “halo” for three months. During his rehabilitation, the plaintiff had difficulty sleeping and needed assistance with ordinary tasks such as bathing. Following the three months, the halo was removed, and the plaintiff only complained of residual back pain. His neck had almost fully healed, but the plaintiff sought additional treatment from an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon recommended surgery. However, the plaintiff again declined and instead opted for an injection treatment. The treatment was successful, and by the time of the trial, the plaintiff did not have difficulty performing daily activities and had not returned to the surgeon for any additional treatments.

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Typically, if one were asked to think of an object involved in the commission of a tort, an ornamental vegetable would not spring to mind. However, harm caused by an ornamental pumpkin is at the center of a recent negligence decision from Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, Schwartz v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Specifically at issue in Schwartz was whether the trial court erred in granting a motion for a new trial following a zero-damages jury verdict and whether the trial court erred by limiting the retrial to just damages for the plaintiff’s initial medical evaluation after the accident.

The plaintiff in this case was shopping at a Florida Wal-Mart store when she was struck in the back by an ornamental pumpkin. The ornamental pumpkin weighed 8.4 ounces and was described as squishy. Prior to trial, Wal-Mart conceded that the plaintiff was struck by the pumpkin because of an employee’s negligent conduct. However, Wal-Mart contested both causation and damages, which are both necessary for establishing negligence. After trial, a jury issued a zero-damages verdict, finding that Wal-Mart’s negligence was not the “cause” of the plaintiff’s claimed loss, injury, or damages. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial but limited the new trial to strictly those damages associated with the plaintiff’s initial medical evaluation following the accident. On appeal, Wal-Mart argued that the trial court should not have granted the motion for a new trial, and the plaintiff argued that the trial court should not have limited the inquiry on retrial so narrowly.

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Generally, jury verdicts are rarely disturbed. Unless there is a grievous error that likely had a material impact on the judgment reached, judges will neither issue a ruling notwithstanding the verdict nor order a new trial. This aversion to modifying judgment was illustrated in a recent decision from Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, Weissman v. Radiology Associates of Ocala, P.A., which involved the propriety of a trial court’s order for a new trial in a wrongful death case that had resulted in a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff.

Weissman concerned an alleged act of medical negligence leading to the wrongful death of a patient. Following the patient’s death, the representative for the deceased plaintiff brought suit against Radiology Associates of Ocala and personnel. After a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Thereafter, the defendants performed a background investigation on the jurors and filed a motion for the court to conduct juror interviews, alleging that there existed material non-disclosures among several of the jurors. The court performed these interviews and then granted the defendants’ separate motion for a new trial, having found that three jurors had indeed failed to make material disclosures during voir dire questioning. The plaintiff then brought an appeal.

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