Firm Obtains PCA Upholding Trial Court’s Order Granting a New Trial
Voegeli v. McNutt, Case No. 4D14-4556, Opinion issued August 11, 2016
The Firm’s client, Tavares McNutt, recently prevailed in an appeal by the Defendant from an order granting McNutt a new trial. The action below arose from a June 2011 automobile accident which caused McNutt, a pastor, to suffer serious injuries when the car in which he was a passenger was crashed into by Voegeli. He brought suit against Voegeli, and the case went to trial. At the close of the evidence, McNutt moved for a directed verdict (DV) on causation, on the grounds that the undisputed evidence was that the accident caused him some injury. The trial court agreed and granted a DV on causation in McNutt’s favor. The jury was then given its instructions and told that the court determined as a matter of law that Voegeli’s negligence caused some damage to McNutt, and the jury was only to determine the amount of McNutt’s damages. McNutt’s trial counsel then gave his closing argument, and because of the DV on causation, did not discuss or argue causation, and told the jury there was no dispute that the accident caused an injury.
After McNutt’s closing, the trial judge called a recess and told counsel she had decided to reverse the previously granted DV on causation. McNutt’s trial counsel was stunned by this, and told the trial court he was considering moving for a mistrial or asking for additional closing argument time. The trial court agreed to give additional closing argument time. The jurors then returned to the courtroom and the trial judge told them about the reversal of the DV ruling, and that they were to decide causation after all. Following that, McNutt’s counsel gave brief additional argument on causation, after which Voegeli’s counsel gave his closing argument which emphasized the causation issue, and McNutt’s counsel gave a brief rebuttal.
The jury returned a verdict in Voegeli’s favor, answering “no” to the question whether Voegeli’s negligence was a legal cause of loss, injury or damage to McNutt. McNutt moved for a new trial, arguing that the trial judge’s actions gave the appearance of partiality against McNutt on causation, and misled and/or confused the jury to find against him on that issue, depriving him of a fair trial. The trial court agreed that her actions might have caused some prejudice to McNutt, and granted the motion for new trial.
On appeal, Of Counsel attorney Michele K. Feinzig argued that the trial court acted well within its discretion in granting a new trial based on the reversal of the DV on causation and the likelihood of jury confusion. The appellate court agreed, and affirmed the grant of a new trial for McNutt. The appellate court rejected Voegeli’s argument that juror confusion was a legally insufficient basis for a new trial and that the record did not support juror confusion, and also rejected Voegeli’s argument that McNutt failed to preserve error by failing to definitively ask for a mistrial. Now that the order granting a new trial has been affirmed, McNutt can return to the trial court and finally seek relief for his injuries in a fair trial.