Preservation of Error: Prejudicial or Argumenative Closing Arguments

ImageThe Second District Court of Appeal, last week, issued an opinion that reversed a trial court’s order granting new trial, Carnival Corporation v. Jimenez, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D455a, Case No. 2D11-5482 (2d DCA February 27, 2013).  The order was predicated on the trial judge’s finding that “comments made [by defense] counsel during closing arguments are perceived to have been prejudicial and highly inflammatory in nature because of their cumulative effect and their accusatory undertones.”  Id.

Jimenez was a personal injury case in which a large part of the defense strategy was to discredit the plaintiff’s expert/treating physician, because he had treated the plaintiff under a letter of protection.  According to the order on appeal, defense counsel “argued in closing . . . that plaintiff’s counsel . . . had collaborated or conspired with [the doctor] to conjure a non-injury into this lawsuit.”  While the trial court recognized that it had allowed evidence of the letter of protection, the introduction of such evidence “is to enable defense counsel to suggest that the doctor may have a financial bias, or stake in the outcome of the case.  Not for the impermissible purpose of allowing Defendant’s attorney to suggest a ‘neighborly’ conspiracy between the doctor and Plaintiff’s attorney.”  In sum, the trial court determined that the defense went so far in putting forth the conspiracy theory that the jury could not fairly assess the issues of causation and damages.

While the general rule is that improper comments made during closing argument may provide a basis for granting a new trial (see Mercury Ins. Co. of Fla. v. Moreta, 957 So. 2d 1242, 1250 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007)), the issue must be properly preserved by contemporaneous objection and a motion for mistrial.  Engle v. Liggett Grp., Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246, 1271 (Fla. 2006).  If the error has not been properly preserved, a new trial is only warranted when the improper behavior amounts to fundamental error.  Companioni v. City of Tampa, 51 So. 3d 452, 456 (Fla. 2010).

The Jimenez court, noted that the plaintiff’s counsel only made two objections relative to the defense counsel’s references to the letter of protection.  Both were sustained, but there was no motion for mistrial.  The court, relying upon the 4-part test articulated in Murphy v. International Robotic Systems, Inc., 766 So. 2d 1010, 1027-31 (Fla. 2000) determined that while the plaintiff established the first prong of Murphy–that the challenged conduct was improper–she did not establish the remaining three prongs:  that the challenged conduct was harmful, that the challenged conduct was incurable, and that public interest in our system of justice requires a new trial.

Because the application of the Murphy factors did not show that the challenged conduct was so highly prejudicial that it denied the plaintiff her right to a fair trial, the order granting new trial was reversed, and the final judgment was ordered to be reinstated.

Practice tip:  when objecting to prejudicial or argumentative closing arguments: 1) object contemporaneously, 2) request a curative instruction (if appropriate), and 3) move for a mistrial, or be bound by the heightened standard for new trials articulated in Murphy.

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