Tag: closing statements

More on BC Injury Claims and Improper Closing Arguments – Appealing to Juror's Emotion

Further to my recent post on this topic, part of a trial lawyer’s job is to convincingly advance their client’s case.  There are limits, however, on the types of statements a lawyer can make to a jury and if these boundaries are overstepped a mistrial may occur.  Today reasons for judgement were published on the BC Supreme Court website discussing the Court’s discretion to order a mistrial when improper statements are made in the course of trial.
In today’s case (Plensky v. Di Biase) the Plaintiff was injured and sued for her damages.  During closing arguments before a Jury the Plaintiff’s lawyer said “I have been carrying the burden (of the Plaintiff’s) file from the time she first walked into my office.  At this point I can hand that burden to you with the hope that she will be restored as much as money can restore her“.
The Defence lawyer objected to this arguing that the statement was made to “appeal to the jury’s sentiment and emotion, improperly interpose counsel in the proceedings and suggest a form of pact between the counsel and the jury“.  The Defence lawyer asked that the Jury be discharged and the verdict be pronounced by Judge alone.  Madam Justice Ross agreed that the statement was in fact inappropriate but chose not to discharge the jury.  In reaching this decision the Court reasoned as follows:

[4]             In such applications, the onus is on the applicant to establish that the misconduct was likely to prejudice the jury, or may have affected a verdict or deprived a party of a fair trial. See Giang v. Clayton, 2005 BCCA 54, 38 B.C.L.R. (4th) 17. The question is whether, with appropriate instructions in the circumstances, the jury will be able to dispel the matters of concern from their minds.

[5]             The jury’s role is to be an impartial arbiter and accordingly, direct appeals to the jurors’ sympathies divert them from this important responsibility. In that regard, see Brophy v. Hutchinson, 2003 BCCA 21, 9 B.C.L.R. (4th) 46. In that case, at para. 46 the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Hesse v. The Saint John Railway Company (1899), 30 S.C.R. 218 was cited, in which the court stated at 239:

It is perhaps impossible to prevent jurors looking at a case in this way, but at least they ought not to be invited to do so, and such direct resorts or appeals to the feelings and interests of the individual jurymen can only exercise a disturbing or misleading influence.

[6]             In Brochu v. Pond (2002), 62 O.R. (3d) 722 (C.A.), the court continued with further commentary with respect to this issue noting at para. 15:

Some restrictions apply to both opening and closing addresses. For example, the expression by counsel of personal opinions, beliefs or feelings regarding the merits of a case has no place in either an opening or a closing address to a jury. That restraint is designed to prevent lawyers from putting their own credibility and reputations in issue, and to avoid any indirect invitation to a jury to decide a case based on information or opinion not established in the evidence . . .

Similarly, comments to a jury which impede the objective consideration of the evidence by the jurors, and which encourage assessment based on emotion or irrelevant considerations, are objectionable at any time. Such comments are “inflammatory”, in the sense that they appeal to the emotions of the jurors and invite prohibited reasoning. If left unchecked, inflammatory comments can undermine both the appearance and the reality of trial fairness . . . requesting a jury to act in a representative capacity will result in a mistrial.

[7]             In Gemmell v. Reddicopp, 2005 BCCA 628, 48 B.C.L.R. (4th) 349, the court noted at para. 37 that the address in that case:

. . . invited the jury to identify and sympathize with the plaintiff. It put [counsel’s] personal and professional life before the jury and invited the jury to identify with his cause.

[8]             With respect to the issue of misconduct and intention, I note that misconduct is not to be limited to deliberate wrongdoing and authority for that is found in Birkan v. Barnes, 69 B.C.L.R. (2d) 132 (C.A.).

[9]             I am mindful of the importance of trial by jury and the plaintiff’s selection of that mode of trial. Such a selection should not be lightly set aside. I am also mindful that the jury deliberations are confidential and if limiting instructions are given, one must take on faith that they will be observed. That consideration makes this decision a very difficult one, however, I have concluded that this was an isolated transgression and that it can be addressed with a strong limiting instruction to the jury that will be given prior to the time that defence counsel commences his closing.

Prejudicial Closing Arguments and the Law in BC

Reasons for judgement were released today dismissing a Plaintiff’s appeal of an award of $0 as a result of a BC motor vehicle accident.
The Plaintiff was allegedly injured in a rear end accident.  He sued claiming on-going consequences from a closed head injury and a whiplash type of soft tissue injury to his neck and back.   After a 5 week jury trial in 2007 the jury found the other motorist at fault but awarded $0 as they found that this collision did not cause any injury to the Plaintiff.
The Plaintiff appealed for various reasons including a claim that the defence lawyer made ‘improper prejudicial statements‘ in his closing argument to the jury.
The BC Court of Appeal Dismissed the case finding that while some of the statements ‘may have been cause for concern (plaintiff’s counsel) took no exception and did not ask the judge to provide any direction to the jury in respect of any aspect of the defence address.’ In dismissing the appeal the Court summarized the law as follows:

[23]            This Court will rarely intervene in a civil case where complaints in the nature of those raised for the first time here were not raised at trial.  In Brophy v. Hutchinson, 2003 BCCA 21, 9 B.C.L.R. (4th) 46, the Chief Justice explained:

[52]  In other words, the trial judge is in the best position to observe the effect of counsel’s statements on the jurors, and to fashion an appropriate remedy for any transgressions.  Where no objection is taken, the assumption is that the effect of any transgression could not have been seriously misleading or unfair and there would be no reason for suspecting injustice.

[53]  It is, however, recognized that there may be exceptional circumstances which merit a new trial, despite a failure on the part of counsel to object to an address: Dale v. Toronto Railway (1915), 24 D.L.R. 413 (Ont. C.A.).  In R. v. Jacquard, [1997] 1 S.C.R. 314 (S.C.C.), the court declined to adopt a strict rule that the failure to object to a jury charge invariably waives the right of appeal.  Lamer, C.J.C. noted: “Such a rule might also unequivocally prejudice an accused’s right of appeal in cases where counsel is inexperienced with jury trials”.  [Emphasis of Finch C.J.B.C.]

[54]  In Basra v. Gill (1994), 99 B.C.L.R. (2d) 9 (B.C.C.A.) the court recognized that where there is a “substantial wrong or miscarriage of justice” a new trial may be required, even in the absence of an objection.

[55]  In my opinion, failure of counsel to make a timely objection to irregular or improper proceedings at trial is and must remain, an important consideration in determining whether there has been a miscarriage of justice.  That consideration, however, is to be weighed against the nature and character of the irregularity or impropriety complained of.

[24]            The nature of the statements now complained of does not raise this to an exceptional case that would justify ordering a new trial.  The judge, who was in the best position to observe the effect of what defence counsel said, made no comment at all.  (the Plaintiff’s) counsel said nothing other than what he said in reply.  If he had sought it, some instruction might have been given.  It was apparently thought to be unnecessary. 

This case, and others like it, go to show that it is difficult to succeed in an appeal when alleged improper conduct is not complained about when it occurs at the trial level.

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

Personal Injury Lawyer

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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