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Tag: mistrials

Court of Appeal Upholds Jury Chronic Pain Award Despite Inappropriate Submissions by Counsel

Reasons for judgement were published today by the BC Court of Appeal dismissing an application for a new trial following a jury award in a chronic pain case.

In today’s case (Brown v. Goodacre) the Plaintiff was injured in a rear end collision that the Defendant was liable for.  The crash resulted in chronic pain and a jury awarded the plaintiff $847,000 in total damages.

The Defendant appealed seeking a new trial arguing plaintiff’s counsel made inappropriate submissions during the trial including

(i)       personalizing the case by bringing himself into the opening statement and closing submissions;

(ii)      giving his personal opinion on the issues, including putting his personal stamp of approval on the merits of his client’s case;

(iii)      giving engineering evidence in the guise of a common sense observation; and

(iv)     in one case, quoting a statement from a medical report that was not in evidence at trial.

The Court of Appeal noted that while some of the comments were not appropriate a failure to object during trial coupled with the trial judge’s caution to the jury about many of these comments meant no new trial was warranted.  In reaching this decision the Court of Appeal provided the following reasons:

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Getting Your Time Estimate Right For Trial

Ask any Judge or Lawyer whose spent time in the BC Court System and they’ll tell you that it is important not to underestimate the amount of time you’ll need to have your matter heard in Court.  If you do you will run the risk of having your case struck off the list and reset for a later date.  Sometimes the matter can be put off well into the future, be it a trial or a chambers application.  Reasons for judgement were published this week on the BC Supreme Court website demonstrating this.
In this week’s case (Smith v. Bregt) the Plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle collision.  She elected to prosecute her case under the BC Supreme Court Fast Track Rule.  One of the current requirements of the current fast track rule (rule 66) is that the trial must be completed within two days.  As the trial got underway it became clear that it could not be completed in two days.  The Defence lawyer brought a motion seeking to have the case removed from the Fast Track.  Madam Justice Dorgan granted the motion, declared a mistrial and ordered that the trial be reset for a later time.  In reaching this conclusion the Court gave the following reasons:

[10] By the endorsement of her pleadings, the plaintiff opted for the Rule 66 trial process.  That signals that the case is suitable to be tried within 2 days.  It is then incumbent upon the plaintiff to tailor its case to fit into the 2day estimate.  The defendant has relied on the endorsement.  So has the administration in that the endorsement impacts the timing of other trials.

[11] If I order that the rule no longer applies, I assume the plaintiff will not get a trial date for some time.  Neither counsel has given me any information from the trial co-ordinator’s office as to what dates are available.  The plaintiff is geared up.  She has given her evidence-in-chief.  Trial preparation is completed.  She clearly wants this matter resolved.  She wants to proceed, to continue, and I can appreciate that.

[12] On the other hand, the defendants submit the plaintiff has taken her own case out of the provisions of Rule 66 by the first witness called, and the defendants argue that the court must enforce the rule with an eye to its purpose.  And, as Mr. Penner pointed out, by a plaintiff’s Rule 66 endorsement a defendant loses his/her right to a trial with a jury.

[13] Because the whole trial agenda timetable is completely out of whack, people will be inconvenienced whether or not the trial proceeds under Rule 66.

[14] Having considered this carefully, I am of the view that the purpose of the rule will be thwarted entirely if the application of the defendants is dismissed.  The interests of justice and fairness to the parties require that a plaintiff, who elects to proceed pursuant to Rule 66, must put its case in within 2 days, barring consent of the parties or reasonably unforeseeable circumstances arising since the trial agenda was filed and leave of the court.

[15] The defendants do not consent to the trial now continuing to completion, which I conclude will require at least 2 more days.  No reasonably unforeseen circumstances have emerged. The endorsement by the plaintiff is the plaintiff’s chance to proceed under Rule 66.  The manner in which the plaintiff has proceeded or the way the case has unfolded leads me to conclude that the case is inappropriate for Rule 66.

[16] In conclusion, pursuant to Rule 66(8), I order that Rule 66 ceases to apply to this action.  I declare a mistrial and order that the trial be placed on the trial list and that I am not seized.

As my readers know, Rule 66 is being abolished as of July 1, 2010, and is being replaced with a new Fast Track Rule known as Rule 15. Rule 15 appears to be mandatory for all personal injury claims with a trial time estimate of 3 days or less.  Like Rule 66 it limits time for discovery to 2 hours and takes away the parties right to a Jury Trial.

The rule relied on in the above case permitting a Court to remove a trial from the Fast Track remains in place under the New Rules and is reproduced at Rule 15-1(8).  Accordingly this case will likely continue to remain a useful precedent under the New Rules and lawyers and litigants themselves should be cautioned to err on the side of overestimating the length of their trials to avoid a result like this one.

The Jursidiciton of Trial Judges to Rule on "Trial Fairness" Matters

In a judgement released today the BC Court of Appeal discussed the power of Trial Judges to make orders relating to “Trial Fairness” matters.
In today’s case (Oberreiter v. Akmali) the Plaintiff sued for personal injuries from a 2004 BC car crash.  The matter went to trial and a Jury awarded the plaintiff about $118,000 in total damages.  Before the judgement was ‘entered’ it was discovered that the jury was given access to surveillance footage of the Plaintiff which had not been entered into evidence.  The Plaintiff successfully applied for a mistrial.  (Click here to read my summary of the mistrial application).
The Defendants brought the matter to the Court of Appeal arguing, amongst other things, that the Trial Judge had “no jurisdiction to entertain a motion after a jury has rendered its verdict and been discharged“.
The BC Court of Appeal disagreed with this submission and dismissed the appeal.  In doing so Madam Justice Smith gave the following useful and succinct outline regarding the powers of trial judges to rule on “trial fairness” matters:

[24] It is settled law that until a judgment or order has been entered, a trial judge continues to be seized of the matter before him or her. In Clayton v. British American Securities,[1935] 1 D.L.R. 432 at para. 83, [1934] 3 W.W.R. 257 (B.C.C.A.), the court noted that this was recognized as an “unquestioned practice” and “one of very long standing”. Similarly inBurke, the court concluded that, as a principle of law, a trial judge retains the remedial jurisdiction to declare a mistrial on an issue that goes to trial fairness (in that case it was whether there existed a reasonable apprehension of bias) after a jury verdict has been rendered and the jury discharged.

[25] In my view, there is no conflict in the authorities and none were provided that would suggest that a trial judge, before judgment is entered, does not retain jurisdiction to address a trial fairness issue. If that were so, then there would be no jurisdiction for a trial judge, as an issue of law, to address an application to reduce a jury’s award on damages that exceeded the “cap”. In my view, there was no arguable or meritorious issue as to whether the trial judge was functus officio to hear the application.

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.

Lawyers Opinions, Mistrials and ICBC Injury Claims

US Trial Lawyer Elliott Wilcox recently wrote a great article on why “I” is one of the most dangerous words for a lawyer to utter in court during a jury trial.  The short answer is because it is inappropriate for lawyers to share their personal opinion as to the merits of a case.  When a lawyer uses the word “I” there is a good chance a personal opinion is going to follow.
Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Court of Appeal demonstrating the repercussions of counsel sharing their opinions during jury trials.
In today’s case (Joy v. Atkinson) the Plaintiff’s lawyer made several comments during his opening statement to the jury which the ICBC defence lawyer took objection to.  After hearing submissions in the absence of the jury the trial judge granted a motion for a mistrial (click here to read my previous post about the trial judgement).
In dismissing the appeal the BC Court of Appeal said the following about lawyers sharing their personal opinion of the merits of the case in jury trials:

[20]          Whether the plaintiff’s argument is otherwise sound need not be decided because there is a further aspect of counsel’s opening that is of particular concern.  Counsel expressed his personal belief in the strength of the plaintiff’s case when he told the jury “we had to satisfy ourselves that Mr. Joy’s injuries are real, serious, and permanent” and that “Geno Joy has and will continue to suffer real harms and losses now and into the future”.  In my view, there is no doubt this was clearly an improper statement.  Counsel acknowledged that to be the case in submissions on the application for a mistrial.  He was in effect giving evidence, albeit inadmissible evidence that could never be challenged, about the plaintiff’s injuries and his losses. 

[21]          Counsel’s suggestion before the judge was that any damage done could be corrected by a jury instruction or what he referred to as a “rebuke”.  But no meaningful suggestion as to what that instruction might be was made nor is one advanced now.  I am unable to see what instruction the judge could have given the jury that would have afforded the defence any confidence counsel’s expression of his satisfaction with the plaintiff’s claim would be ignored.  The jury had been told counsel had satisfied himself – he knew, apparently by investigation – the injuries suffered which the defence was challenging were real, serious, and permanent and they had caused, and would in the future cause, real losses.  That was not an assertion each member of the jury could be expected to completely ignore no matter what they were told, and it bore directly on the fairness of the trial.

[22]          The judge did not refer to this part of the opening statement in the reasons he gave for declaring a mistrial but, in my view, it is fatal to the success of this appeal.  It cannot now be said there was no sound basis for a mistrial.

ICBC Injury Claims, Video Surveillance and Mistrials

Reasons for judgment were released today by the BC Supreme Court ordering a mistrial following a trial by jury.
In today’s case (Oberreiter v. Akmali) the Plaintiff sued for injuries after she was struck by a vehicle while riding her bicycle in North Vancouver in 2004.  Fault was not at issue, rather the trial focused solely on quantum of damages (value of the ICBC Injury Claim).  Following trial the jury awarded the Plaintiff approximately $118,000 in damages.  Prior to having the judgement entered the Plaintiff applied for a mistrial.  
The key facts giving rise to the application for a mistrial are as follows:

              After the trial was completed and the jury had been discharged, the plaintiff’s counsel discovered that the DVD contained approximately ten minutes of video which had not been shown to the jury.  Through an unintentional error in editing, the DVD which was marked as an exhibit contained images which had not been shown to the jury; had not been seen by counsel or myself; and had not been admitted into evidence. 

[7]                The issue is whether the plaintiff is entitled to a mistrial because material not admitted into evidence was inadvertently included in an exhibit available to they jury during its deliberations.

In granting the mistrial, Mr. Justice Kelleher of the BC Supreme Court gave the following reasons:


[10]            Where an irregularity such as the inadvertent inclusion of non-admitted material in exhibits left with the jury occurs, it is usually identified during the course of the trial.  When that occurs, the court must consider all possible actions to remedy potential prejudice before ordering a mistrial.  It may be that such an irregularity could be corrected with an instruction to the jury: seeGemmell v. Reddicopp, 2005 BCCA 628, 48 B.C.L.R. (4th) 349.

[11]            Where the irregularity cannot be cured and the trial judge is satisfied that it may have a prejudicial effect impacting the result of the trial, a mistrial is the appropriate remedy: see de Araujo v. Read, 2004 BCCA 267, 29 B.C.L.R. (4th) 84.  In that case, Mr. Justice Thackray observed at para. 68:  “…a new trial may be ordered where trial irregularities may have influenced the verdict or award of the jury… “.

[12]            Here, of course, there was no opportunity to correct the irregularity.  Neither of the parties was aware of the inadvertent inclusion of material not admitted as evidence in the exhibit until the trial had ended and the jury had been discharged. 

[13]            It may be that the irregularity and any resulting prejudice could have been corrected easily if it had been noticed before the jury’s deliberations had come to an end.  Perhaps the jury could have been instructed not to have regard to the footage. 

[14]            It is not known what the jury viewed.  What is certain is that the jury was provided with material relevant to the case that was not evidence and was not led in court.  This raises concerns about trial fairness and potential prejudice to the plaintiff.  An important factual issue in the trial was the extent and severity of the plaintiff’s injuries.  Thus, the video surveillance footage is highly relevant and potentially prejudicial.

[15]            Notwithstanding the general principles of respect for jury secrecy, there is jurisdiction to make some inquiries of a jury: see R. v. Pan, 2001 SCC 42, [2001], 2 S.C.R. 344.  However, I am not persuaded that asking the foreperson to appear in court and to advise the court whether the jury viewed the DVD is appropriate.  Many weeks have passed since the trial.  Recall of a juror for these purposes is impractical and of questionable reliability.

[16]            It is clear that a trial judge has the power to order a mistrial if the judge concludes there is no other option to remedy an irregularity.  After the jury has been discharged, I am satisfied there is nothing further that can be done by the court.

[17]            Both parties are entitled to have the jury decide the case solely on the evidence properly admitted during the trial.  That is fundamental to a fair trial.  It is my duty as a trial judge to ensure that this is safeguarded.  Here, it is accepted by both parties that there was extraneous material made available to the jury that was not evidence admitted during the trial.  This material is relevant to the issues in the trial and is potentially prejudicial.  Since this irregularity cannot be corrected I conclude it would be unjust and unfair to let the verdict stand. 

[18]            A mistrial is appropriate where necessary to ensure that justice is done between the parties: see de Araujo v. Read.  The plaintiff’s application for a mistrial is allowed.