An attorney’s opening and closing arguments during trial should not be confused for evidence. The attorney may attempt to persuade the jury on how to best interpret the evidence introduced at trial. But a jury is not supposed to substitute rhetoric for evidence.
Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the content of an attorney’s closing statements could justify overturning the jury’s verdict. The underlying case was a personal injury lawsuit where the jury had to determine the relative fault of two drivers. The jury ruled for the defendant, prompting the plaintiff to argue defense counsel’s closing arguments improperly affected the decision.
Young v. Griffin
In June 2010, the plaintiff was driving his motorcycle when he approached a railroad crossing. According to his testimony at trial, as he “got right at the track,” the crossing lights began to flash, indicating an approaching train. At this point, the plaintiff said he observed a truck, driven by the defendant, blocking the lane on the other side of the crossing. The plaintiff then slammed on his brakes, but he was unable to avoid a collision with the defendant. The defendant testified he was approaching the railroad crossing from the other direction, but decided to execute a last-minute U-turn rather than stopping and waiting for the train to pass. As he completed the turn, he felt the plaintiff’s motorcycle rear-end him.
The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant. At trial, the defense introduced photographs of the skid marks produced by the plaintiff’s motorcycle as he applied his brakes just before the accident. During closing arguments, defense counsel said the skid mark evidence contradicted the plaintiff’s testimony regarding his actions just before the crash. Defense counsel asserted the plaintiff’s attorney previously argued there was a “reaction time” of 2.5 seconds between seeing a potential hazard and responding accordingly. At this point, plaintiff’s counsel objected, saying that was a mischaracterization of both his prior arguments and the evidence before the jury. The judge ultimately waived off the objection, saying the jury could decide for itself what the attorneys had previously said.
The jury ultimately held the plaintiff was 51 percent responsible for the accident, and entered judgment for the defendant. The plaintiff appealed, arguing the trial judge should have been more proactive in policing the defense counsel’s closing arguments. The Court of Appeals disagreed, and affirmed the judgment. The appeals court said there was no reason to believe the defense attorney’s statements regarding “reaction time” improperly influenced the verdict. There was sufficient evidence introduced at trial casting doubt on the plaintiff’s testimony and version of events. Furthermore, the trial judge expressly told the jury that the attorney’s opening and closing arguments were not evidence.
The Court of Appeals also dismissed various objections raised by the plaintiff to the trial judge’s instructions to the jury. These instructions consisted primarily of citations to Georgia traffic laws. The defendant argued the plaintiff was primarily responsible for the accident because he broke these laws. On appeal, the plaintiff said there was no evidence to support that argument. The jury, and the Court of Appeals, disagreed. Although in one case the trial judge instructed the jury with respect to inapplicable provision of the traffic code, overall there was no reversible error.