Lawyer's 'Inflammatory' Words Don't Warrant New Trial
Holland claimed that PCC was negligent because it sold a motorcycle to Morton without verifying that he had insurance or a valid driver's license, Wecht said.
During his closing argument, Holland told the jury, "If [the defendants] had been a tad bit careful back at the store, they never would have hurt [Ferguson]. In essence, they are here carefully protecting their right to needlessly endanger the public. Please tell them that in our community the safety of people is more important than safety of money," Wecht cited from the trial transcript.
The trial court sustained almost every objection raised by PCC's counsel during Holland's argument and repeatedly admonished Holland as he persisted with his remarks, Wecht said. Eventually, the trial judge cut off Holland's closing argument entirely.
Throughout the course of Holland's remarks, the trial judge issued curative instructions to the jury. However, PCC claimed that the instructions were ineffective and that its case was unfairly prejudiced, according to Wecht.
After reviewing Holland's comments, Wecht said, the trial judge found that it would be impossible to conclude that the jury's verdict did not wrongly include punitive damages and granted a new trial.
According to Wecht, "The court cited no legal authority and did not elaborate in any way on such in-court observations as the court might have made, beyond the comments themselves, that compelled its ruling."
In terms of the verdict awarded, Wecht mentioned that the number "only minimally" surpassed the cap for economic damages in the trial. He noted that it was within the jury's purview to also award non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, should they have chosen to do so.
Given the initial trauma of the accident and the ongoing pain and hardship it caused Ferguson, Wecht said, the jury might reasonably have awarded significant non-economic damages.
Wecht also determined that the jury was not improperly influenced by Holland's comments because they assigned liability equally between PCC and Morton.
"That the jury apportioned liability equally implies that the jurors did not calibrate their award in magnitude or apportionment to punish PCC," he said.