More from BC Court of Appeal on Jury Trials and Counsel Statements

I recently posted on the potential for mistrials when counsel give their personal opinion in an opening statement to a jury.  Today reasons for judgement were released by the BC Court of Appeal further discussing, amongst other topics, proper opening remarks by counsel in a Car Crash case.
In today’s case (Moskaleva v. Laurie) the Plaintiff suffered serious injuries including a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) in a 2002 motor vehicle collision.  The Plaintiff was crossing with the light in a marked cross-walk in Maple Ridge at the time.
After a 18 day jury trial damages of over $1.9 million were awarded for her injuries and losses.  The Defendant appealed on 5 grounds stating that
1.  the opening submissions of respondent’s counsel were improper and prejudicial;
2.  the cross-examination of a psychiatrist called by the appellant exceeded the bounds of proper cross-examination and thereby prejudiced the jury;
3.  the trial judge’s interventions and questions during the testimony of three expert witnesses called by the defence impugned the credibility of those witnesses.
4.  the appellant alleges that the trial judge erred in his instructions to the jury by failing to explain properly the law relevant to past and future economic loss and by inaccurately stating the appellant’s position on that issue.  The relief the appellant seeks on the first four grounds of appeal is an order for a new trial.

5.  that the awards for non-pecuniary damages, past wage loss, and future economic loss are inordinately high, not supported by the evidence, and inconsistent with the jury’s award for cost of future care.

The Appeal was dismissed on all 5 grounds.  This case is worth reviewing for the courts discussion on these areas of law particularly the permissible scope of cross examination of experts and counsels opening statements.  Below I reproduce the Courts analysis of the opening statement of the Plaintiff’s lawyer:

[19] Under the first ground of appeal, the appellant argues that the opening submissions of respondent’s counsel were improper and prejudicial and resulted in an unfair trial.  To support her submissions that the opening statement failed to conform to the proper function or purpose of an opening, the appellant refers to Halsbury’s Laws of England, 3rd ed. (London: Butterworths, 1953), vol. 3, at 69, and to what was said by Finch C.J.B.C. in Brophy v. Hutchinson, 2003 BCCA 21 at paras. 24-25, 9 B.C.L.R. (4th) 46.  As to the effect of an improper opening statement, the appellant refers to Brophy at para. 48.

[20] The appellant complains that the opening statement contained no explanation as to its purpose and, rather than outlining the facts the respondent expected to prove, gave a description of the accident, the mechanism of a brain injury, and the respondent’s training and employment background, all as if they were established fact, thereby giving the impression that all that was important for the jury to consider was the evidence of the respondent’s symptoms in the aftermath of the collision.  The appellant further submits that in the opening, the respondent’s symptoms and the consequences of the accident were couched in pathos through an emotional appeal to the challenges faced by the respondent as an immigrant to Canada from Russia.  The appellant argues that while the complete effect of the opening remarks of respondent’s counsel cannot be known to a certainty, the character of those remarks was clearly prejudicial.  The appellant contends that the fullness of their effect was to cement for the jury as fact the assertion that the respondent had suffered a brain injury, was incapable of performing work, and had suffered a significant economic loss.

[21] The appellant also complains that a phrase used by the respondent’s lawyer at the conclusion of his opening improperly suggested that the accident, instead of being the result of negligence, was volitional.  In that regard, the appellant refers to the statement in the opening that the appellant “chose to launch her car forward from that stop sign and not pay attention to who was in the cross-walk”.  In the appellant’s submission, the effect was to present the appellant’s case in the context of the respondent as victim and the appellant as culprit.  The appellant argues that the effect was to demonize the appellant at the inception of the trial, thus implicitly characterizing her as a person who intentionally disregarded the interests of others, rather than being merely negligent.

[22] Another complaint the appellant makes is that it was improper for respondent’s counsel to use evidence in the form of photographs in the opening.

[23] In my view, none of the arguments put forward under the first ground of appeal can succeed.

[24] The appellant’s characterization of what was said in the respondent’s opening is overstated and, in some instances, inaccurate.  Prior to counsel for the respondent beginning his opening statement, appellant’s counsel informed the trial judge that he did not dispute that the appellant was negligent but said he was not in a position to admit liability.  As a result of the position taken, liability was obviously in issue.  In the circumstances, for respondent’s counsel to refer to the respondent’s recollection of the accident in his opening statement is unremarkable.  At trial, appellant’s counsel did not object to the description given by respondent’s counsel as to how the accident had occurred and did not complain that respondent’s counsel had “demonized” the appellant.

[25] The suggestion that a miscarriage of justice occurred as a result of what was said by respondent’s counsel in his opening about the circumstances of the accident is further undermined when considered along with the submissions on liability made later in the trial.  Before making his final submission to the jury, respondent’s counsel advised the trial judge and appellant’s counsel that he intended to submit that “one of the reasons why we’re here is because Ms. Laurie [the appellant] says she’s not at fault”.  Appellant’s counsel stated he did not have a problem with that submission and later agreed it was appropriate for the trial judge to instruct the jury to find the appellant negligent.  I further note that during the course of his closing submissions, appellant’s counsel told the jury:

Now, you’ve heard that Ms. Laurie ran her vehicle into the plaintiff.  There’s no doubt.  There’s no doubt that Ms. Moskaleva was in the intersection.  There’s no doubt that Ms. Moskaleva had the right-of-way.  There is nothing that I could say to suggest that Ms. Moskaleva did anything wrong, or that my client demonstrated all the care that she should have.  She didn’t.  She didn’t.  As a result you may find that my client was negligent.  I don’t have anything to say on that.  Nothing I can say.  I think it’s fairly obvious.

[26] In view of the foregoing, there is no substance to the submission that the remarks in the respondent’s opening about the appellant’s manner of driving at the time of the accident resulted in the kind of prejudice that would require a new trial.

[27] In his opening, respondent’s counsel showed the jury some photographs of the respondent and her husband.  Appellant’s counsel had been informed in advance by respondent’s counsel that he intended to use the photographs in his opening and appellant’s counsel told the trial judge he did not have “a problem” with the photographs.  After the opening had been given, appellant’s counsel repeated that he did not object to the use of the photographs.

[28] The appellant’s contention that the respondent’s counsel stated evidence as fact, thereby resulting in prejudice requiring a new trial, ignores the trial judge’s opening instructions to the jury.  Near the commencement of the trial, the judge gave the jury various instructions, including an instruction on the purpose of counsel’s openings.  After referring to the burden and standard of proof, the trial judge said, in part:

I will turn next to the opening remarks of counsel.  One of the Mr. Faheys will begin the trial once I have concluded my remarks.  He will take the opportunity to explain to you what he expects the evidence will disclose and give you an overview of his case.  Counsel for the defendant will do so at a later time after the plaintiff’s evidence has been called.  These opening remarks are made so that you will have a better understanding of the nature of the evidence that the parties intend to call; however, the opening remarks are not evidence and you cannot rely on what the lawyer says in his opening to prove the facts that you have to prove to decide the case.  You must only accept that the case is proven based on evidence that is called at court.

[29] Counsel for the respondent referred throughout his opening to the types of evidence he intended to adduce and what that evidence would show.  He specifically told the jury there would be controversy in the evidence concerning brain injury, concussion, and post-concussion syndrome and asked the jury to pay close attention to the evidence that would be led.  There were some phrases or statements in the respondent’s opening that might have been more carefully couched, but considered in the context in which they were uttered, they were not such as to exclude consideration of the case for the appellant.

[30] After the respondent’s counsel had concluded his opening statement, appellant’s counsel asked the trial judge to remind the jury that the opening was not evidence.  The trial judge decided his earlier instruction was sufficient, and in his charge, the judge reminded the jury that they were to rely on their own recollection of the evidence, not anything said by counsel.

[31] Of considerable significance in regard to this ground of appeal is the fact that appellant’s counsel told the trial judge he was not seeking a mistrial as a result of anything said during the opening.  This is a case in which appellant’s counsel specifically put his mind to the effect of the opening and elected not to seek an order discharging the jury. A deliberate election, such as occurred in this case, is a powerful circumstance militating against the appellant’s submission that a new trial is required to rectify an unfair trial.  While the facts of the case differ from the case at bar, the observation of Hall J.A. in R. v. Doyle, 2007 BCCA 587 at para. 28, 248 B.C.A.C. 307, is apposite:

In my opinion, having made a reasoned decision not to seek a mistrial, I do not consider it is open now to counsel for the appellant to advance an argument that the discovery and use by the judge of the evidence resulted in an unfair trial proceeding.  A rational choice was made at trial by experienced and competent counsel and it would not be appropriate to now allow this point to be the foundation of a contrary position in this Court.

[32] Further support for the view expressed by Hall J.A. may be found in Rendall v. Ewert (1989), 60 D.L.R. (4th) 513, 38 B.C.L.R. (2d) 1 at 10 (C.A.), and in Morton v. McCracken (1995), 7 B.C.L.R. (3d) 220 at para. 13, 57 B.C.A.C. 47.

[33] I would not accede to the first ground.

bc court of appeal, brain injury, Lawyer Statements Jury Trials, mistrials, Moskaleva v. Laurie

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

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When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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