Bad Jury Instructions Can Lead to Problems Later On

When a personal injury case gets submitted to a jury, the jury doesn’t just automatically know what questions it must decide on, nor does it know what kind of law applies. It’s up to the parties, at the conclusion of a trial to instruct a jury to give them guidance on how to rule. That’s normally done by submitting jury instructions.

Both parties must agree to the instructions, and when they can’t it’s often a judge that will make the final decisions.

Those instructions are vitally important. As you can imagine, subtle wording can persuade a jury, and misstating the law, or what the parties have to prove to win, can be the difference between winning and losing. And when jury instructions are incorrect or inaccurate, it can create huge problems, such was the case in a recent appeal to Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals.

Bad Instructions Create a Problem

In Coba v. Tricam Indus., Inc., an injured party was suing for damages that were alleged to be caused by a defective design in a product. The jury instructions read:

“(1) Did Defendants, Tricam Industries and/or Home Depot, place the ladder on the market with a design defect, which was a legal cause of Roberto Coba’s death?

(2) Was there negligence on the part of Defendants, Tricam Industries and/or Home Depot, which was a legal cause of Roberto Coba’s death?”

The jury answered “no,” to the first question, but “yes” to the second. The problem is that the injured party wasn’t suing for negligence—only for a design defect. Thus, when the jury said “yes” to the second question, it was saying yes to liability under a theory that didn’t exist in the case. The jury was allowed to do that because of the way the jury instructions were drafted.

The Appellate Court Cites Fundamental Error

This seems like an easy appeal and an obvious error. The verdict for negligence should be overturned. But the defendant’s attorney made what could have been a crucial error—he or she failed to object to the jury instructions during the trial. You cannot appeal bad jury instructions if you don’t raise the issue at trial. Because the attorney failed to object, the injured party argued that the verdict should be allowed to stand under the instructions as written.

But the appellate court disagreed. Even though an objection must be normally made during trial or else it’s waived, the court made an exception where jury instructions were fundamentally flawed.

Because it would be logically impossible for a jury to find a defendant did not design a dangerous product, but also still believe the defendant was negligent even though the only theory of negligence would be based on the defective design, the court found the error in the case to be fundamental, and reversed the jury verdict.

Forgetting to raise an issue at trial can forever bar a party from arguing something at the appellate level. Thus, the entire problem could have been avoided both by submitting properly worded jury instructions, but also by understanding the subtle rules of appeal.

Small oversights at trial can cause big problems later on. If you are injured, make sure that you have attorneys that understand the laws of trial and appeal. Talk to the Miami personal injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today for a free consultation about your case.

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