Jury Verdict Reversed Because of Questions Posed to Corporate Representative Where Liability Admitted

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In Mercedes-Benz v. Fortson, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in allowing the Plaintiff to question Defendant’s corporate representative regarding the subject car crash where Defendant had stipulated to liability.

The appellate court explained that when a defendant admits the entire responsibility for an accident, and only damages are at issue, evidence regarding liability is irrelevant and prejudicial. The court also noted that at a civil trial on negligence it is improper to refer to “guilt” or “innocence.”

Plaintiff’s examination of the corporate representative violated these principles and constituted harmful error because the majority of the questions were irrelevant to damages and aimed at inflaming the jury.

Plaintiff’s counsel, for instance, asked the corporate representative whether Defendant admitted guilt; whether it was true that Defendant only admitted guilt years after the incident; and if it was correct that the corporate representative answered questions during the litigation while she was not employed by Defendant and only came to the trial because she was subpoenaed. Further, the counsel described Plaintiff as “innocent” and continued to use the term “guilt” to describe Defendant’s stipulation to liability after the trial court sustained an objection to its use.

The appellate court found that the error was compounded by counsel’s closing argument, where he reminded the jury of the corporate representative’s testimony and asked a rhetorical question consistent with the improper themes of the examination implying collusion, indifference or misconduct by Defendant.

Citation: TT of Indian River, Inc. d/b/a Mercedes-Benz of Melbourne and James C. Dorman v. Heidi Fortson, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D2655a (Fla. 5th DCA Dec. 15, 2017)

(This post was prepared by Karina D. Rodrigues, Esq. For more information, please contact Karina at kdr@kulaw.com or 954-522-6601).