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Violation of Motion in Limine Leads Court to Grant New Trial

On April 11, 2013, John Williams was operating a tractor when he was hit by a dump truck being operated by Rubin Harvey, Jr.. Williams was thrown from the tractor and sustained serious injuries, including brain trauma. Williams subsequently underwent medical evaluations and participated in physical therapy. Williams was discharged to his residence five weeks later. At trial, Williams claimed damages related to dementia, medication required for seizures, trouble walking, becoming easily agitated and confused, and sexual dysfunction. He claimed to require 24-hour-supervision for daily tasks. Williams also wears a gait belt because he is at high risk for falling. At trial, Williams was wearing a gait belt and receiving 24-hour-care at home. An economist opined Williams’s continued care at home would cost $3, 382,383.15 and $2,008, 790.15 for Williams’s move/new residency at a memory care unit.

Williams’s counsel sought $3.4 million in special damages and $20 million for pain and suffering at trial. Counsel for Oxford and Harvey recognized Harvey’s negligence and Harvey’s causation of the incident. Defense counsel argued reasonable compensation would be between $4.1 and $5.1 million, including a payment of $1.5 million for future care, lost wages, and claimed medical expenses. Defense counsel additionally suggested a fair cost of pain and suffering to be between $1.5 and $2.5 million. The jury returned with a verdict of $18 million. The trial court credited Oxford and Harvey with an insurance company payment and entered judgment in favor of Williams in the amount of $12,567,896.16.

Oxford and Harvey filed a motion for a new trial arguing that plaintiff’s counsel used language to inflame the jury’s emotions in his closing arguments. Williams’s counsel told the jury that awarding damage based on the cost of nursing home care rather than the more expensive home care would equate to “signing [Williams’s] death warrant.” This argument was not supported by the evidence, and the trial court’s order upon a motion in limine, counsel argued, prohibited such an argument. Although the defense’s motion for a new trial was denied, the court of appeals held the ruling on that motion for new trial along with the trial court’s pretrial ruling were sufficient to preserve for appellate review issues with respect to plaintiff counsel’s closing argument.

On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed. Harvey et. al v. Williams, Ga. Ct. App A19A2217 (March 16, 2020). It was not clear that plaintiff’s counsel’s improper closing argument did not influence the jury’s $18 million award to plaintiff. The argument violated the trial court’s motion in limine suppressing arguments made to overly inflame the emotions of the jury. It was clear that the existence of a ruling against such arguments rendered “harmless error” arguments on appeal…harmless -- or at least unconvincing.

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