Can the Jury Be Told of a Defendant’s Municipal Court Guilty Finding in a Civil Court Jury Trial Opening?

Barnes v. Flannery.  November 22, 2106 Appellate Division Decision.

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

Often in personal injury cases defendants who caused the crash are charged with violation of the Title 39 Motor Vehicle Code. Long before any civil personal injury trial these defendants usually go to municipal court and either have a trial before a municipal court judge, plead guilty, or just pay the fine the New Jersey’s automatic fine pain program on the Internet.

In this case the Plaintiff’s attorney wanted to introduce to the jury the defendant’s Municipal Court trial conviction for careless driving and failure to maintain a lane in his opening even though the defendant did not testify at the municipal court hearing.   The judge allowed this evidence in the attorney’s opening of the trial, but changed his mind the next day after the defense attorney obviously brought the rule of evidence and caselaw to the judges attention that prohibited this evidence from being brought in front of the jury.

New Jersey Rule  of Evidence 803(c)( 22 ) allows evidence of a final judgment of guilt only for an indictable offense, not a traffic charge under Title 39. In addition there is a New Jersey Supreme Court decision from 2015, Maida v. Kuslin, 221 N.J. 126 (2015), which precludes a civil trial judge from admitting evidence in a civil trial of a defendant’s traffic court conviction because the defendant never admitted guilt.

On the second day of the civil jury trial the defendant moved from a mistrial based on the evidence presented in plaintiffs opening. On the third day of trial the judge instructed the jury to disregard that evidence because they should not have heard it.   The jury returned a verdict in the amount of $ 375,000 and found the defendant 100% responsible.   The defendant appealed arguing the judge’s curative instruction was not sufficient to cure the prejudice suffered when the defendants Municipal Court guilty finding was presented to the jury.

The question in this case is whether the judge’s curative instruction regarding the inadmissible evidence cured the prejudicial effect in the juries eyes. The standard of review is whether the trial judge, with his ‘view of the case’ is best equipped to gauge the effect of the curative or limiting instruction fixed the problem in the jury’s eyes.  Further, the defendants request for a mistrial, as an extraordinary remedy, should only be exercised when necessary to prevent an obvious failure of justice. The appellate courts have been instructed not to reverse a trial court’s denial of a mistrial  request unless the moving party can clearly show actual harm or that the court abused its discretion at the trial level by the moving party.

In this case the jury was provided a statement that “the reference by plaintiff’s counsel concerning the municipal court’s guilty finding” shall not be considered in any manner during deliberations quote. The appellate court found this very instruction had been ruled ‘sufficient to cure the error in other cases’. As a result, this reviewing court found no abuse of discretion when the trial court denied a request for the mistrial because the exact same correcting language was used.

The appellate panel also focused on the fact that the offending statement by counsel was used “in argument” (the attorney’s opening) as opposed to actual evidence presented to the jury. This appellate panel also admonished us as readers that,  “In addition, the trial court’s jury instructions prior to delivering the case to the jury is that their deliberations must be made based on the “evidence” and the attorneys arguments are only “argument”, not “evidence “.”

Finally the appellate panel made reference to the New Jersey Supreme Court statement, “improper argument of counsel are rendered harmless by the courts correcting instructions because the jury is presumed to follow the courts instructions rather than counsel’s arguments ” and , “our Courts act on the believe an expectation that jurors will follow the instructions given them by the court… And hold in high regard the capacity and integrity of jurors’ ability to follow the trial court curative instruction’s”.

As an important aside, the appellate panel did consider the trial court’s reference to the particularly overwhelming physical evidence against the defendant, the police officers testimony, plaintiffs testimony, and the courts finding that the defendants contrary testimony was “totally not credible” and “metaphysically impossible”. Factually, the defendant drove into on coming traffic and struck the plaintiff causing substantial injuries.  In other words, in weighing the curative instruction error and delay in giving that instruction to the jury against the defendant’s credibility and all of the facts of the case, the trial judge had the best “feel of the case” to gauge the prejudicial effect of the attorney’s comments in the opening.

It appears in this case the defense attorney was attempting to capitalize on a minor error in order to secure a new trial after a $375,000  jury verdict was rendered. The trial judge weighed all of the actual evidence against any alleged harm given the plaintiff’s attorney’s opening statement at trial and threw out the defendant’s argument. The defendant was not going to get another bite of the same apple given his overwhelming culpability in the crash and resulting substantial injuries to plaintiff.

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