There are certain beliefs that we have about American justice that are crucial to an effective court system. One such belief is in the neutrality of our judges. That our judges will see our case impartially, without interference from public opinion, or their own personal beliefs. A recent case has upheld this idea, and it’s an important lesson in listening to what judges say while on the bench.
Judge Makes Comments During a Hearing
The case doesn’t involve a personal injury, but rather involves an insurance coverage dispute. A homeowners’ association (HOA) sued its own insurance company after the insurance company claimed that the insurance policy did not cover the repair of falling concrete in a parking garage.
The insurance company asserted that because the HOA did not cooperate with them in their investigation of the problems, they had not yet agreed to pay for the damage.The HOA asserted they needed to have experts go and look at the property as well before agreeing to coverage.
In a hearing occurring before any trial, the judge made the comment to the attorney for the insurance company that his client should “fork over the money” if they haven’t denied coverage. The judge also stated that the insurance company had denied the claim, stated that he would sanction the insurance company, and stated that “This is not rocket science.…Ever since they put a piece of steel inside concrete they’ve been having these issues. It’s not a big deal.”
The court also advised the HOA’s attorneys, when they depose the insurance company’s expert, that “If it were me, I would still ask questions of an opinion nature and get the statements regarding privilege on the record.”
Appeal On Comments Ensues
The insurance company filed a writ (an appeal) to the appellate court, asking that the judge be disqualified from the case on the basis that he had clearly formed not just an opinion about the outcome of the case, but about the attorneys for the insurance company. It alleged that many of the judge’s comments suggested that he didn’t trust or believe the insurance company’s position—a determination that had to be made only at trial, when all evidence is presented, and not beforehand at a pretrial hearing.
A judge cannot become an “active participant” in litigation, or give advice to either party. The appellate court noted that here the court suggested that it would award sanctions to the HOA, even though the HOA hadn’t asked for them. Doing so was tacitly advising the HOA of what to do.
The same goes for the judge’s advice as to how and what kind of questions to ask at an expert’s deposition.
The court’s comments also constituted a predetermination as to what the facts will show, and a belief in facts that were not supported by any evidence at all, thus improperly turning the judge into a litigant, according to the appellate court.
Judges Are Crucial, Even With a Jury
It’s important to remember that even if your case will ultimately be tried by a jury, a judge still makes crucial determinations as to evidentiary issues, discovery of facts, jury instructions, and loads of other things that directly impact your ability to recover for injuries. Thus, preserving the neutrality of a court is vital.
Making sure you have an effective and fair trial starts long before the trial itself does. Make sure your attorneys are looking out for you from the very beginning. Talk to the Miami personal injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today for a free consultation about your miami or South Florida injury case