In a case that originally resulted in a Nuclear Verdict®, the defense was successful in its appeal, which highlighted multiple issues throughout the trial including improprieties during plaintiff’s counsel’s closing argument.
The case involves an HVAC technician who was working on a roof to access the air conditioning system when he fell through a skylight, sustaining injuries that ultimately resulted in his death. The accident occurred at a commercial warehouse in Miami, Florida, owned by Martex Corporation and operated by MAPS. The decedent’s father filed suit against multiple named defendants, including Martex and MAPS for failing to warn his son about a concealed danger from skylights on the roof of the warehouse.[i]
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff before a trial resulted in a twelve-million-dollar verdict for the plaintiff and his wife. The jury apportioned seventy percent liability towards defendant Martex and twenty percent of liability towards defendant MAPS. [ii]
Leading a Successful Appeal
Following the jury trial, the defendant Martex Corporation appealed on several grounds. The Third District Court of Appeal agreed with the defendant’s contention that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff, as there existed “…a genuine issue of material fact that prevented the entry of summary judgment.”[ii] In addition, the court held that the defendant was repeatedly denied its right to a fair trial.
Specifically, the plaintiff’s counsel violated an order granting the defendant’s motion in limine to prohibit the plaintiff from introducing evidence of subsequent remedial measures. The court agreed that this violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Further, the court noted multiple improper arguments made by the plaintiff’s counsel during closing argument. Plaintiff’s counsel had made several references to the tragic Surfside Condo collapse which killed nearly 100 people in Miami, Florida, just a few weeks prior to this trial.[iii] Because this tragedy was wholly irrelevant to the case before the jury, the court agreed that it was improper argument. Notably, the defendant’s counsel objected during trial but was overruled.
Further, during the closing argument, plaintiff’s counsel broke the cardinal rule not to ask jurors to put themselves in the plaintiff’s shoes by improperly asking the jury to issue a verdict, “not just for these folks…but for the entire community”.[iv] Finding this appeal “send a message language”[v], the court again found the argument prohibited. Reasoning that “…the cumulative effect of these comments, along with the subsequent remedial measure […], was enough to negate a fair trial”.[vi]
This case is a clear example of plaintiff’s counsel using juror anger to fuel a Nuclear Verdict®, going so far as to ignore court orders and well-settled principles to enrage a jury. The defense counsel in this case objected at each instance, but was overruled. That persistence is key to any appeal, as objections preserve the issue for appeal. With Nuclear Verdicts® on the rise, defense counsel must be proactive in defusing jury anger at the outset, but must also protect the record so that any future appeals might have a shot at success.
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