Court Defends Right to Lawyer in Florida Car Accident Cases – Howard v. Palmer

A person who is injured in a car accident not only has the right to an attorney, but also the right to seek legal counsel right away. As the Fourth District Court of Appeal explains in Howard v. Palmer, the timing in which a person obtains a lawyer after a crash cannot be used to try to undermine his claims at trial.

Howard was injured in a car accident that occurred after Palmer ran a stop sign. Palmer was an employee of Groupware International, Inc. and was on the job at the time. Howard sued Palmer and Groupware for negligence.

Prior to trial, Howard filed a motion in limine seeking to prevent defense counsel from introducing evidence related to or referencing the fact that Howard obtained a lawyer on the day of the accident, prior to even seeking medical treatment. In arguing the motion, the defense asserted that the evidence called into question whether Howard suffered permanent injury. If the injury were so serious, he would have gone directly to a doctor, the argument went.

Although the trial court granted Howard’s motion, defense counsel proceeded to ask one of Howard’s doctors during cross examination whether he was aware that Howard had contacted an attorney prior to seeking treatment. The trial judge sustained Howard’s objection, admonished defense counsel and instructed the jury as follows: “When Howard hired a lawyer is not a subject for your consideration. You are to disregard that question.” The trial court denied Howard’s motion for a mistrial based on this issue.

The jury eventually returned a verdict in Howard’s favor, but awarded him only about half of the damages he was seeking.

On appeal, the Fourth District agreed with Howard that he should have been granted a mistrial. First, the court rejected Palmer’s lawyer’s claim that he had simply “misunderstood” the limine ruling. As the court explained, the motion and ruling were based on its 1990 decision in Watson v. Builders Square Inc., holding that the fact that a plaintiff contacted an attorney within three days was irrelevant and prejudicial. Because this ruling was at the center of the argument in the limine motion, Palmer’s counsel necessarily was aware that he was barred from discussing the timing in which Howard obtained counsel.

The court also found that the defense lawyer made other improper statements at trial. Specifically, he asked the same treating doctor whether he knew that it was Howard’s father who had taken certain photos of the accident scene and during opening statements implied that Howard was motivated to sue because Groupware is owned by Comcast, a large, well-known cable company with plenty of money. The trial court sustained Howard’s objections in both instances, but the Fourth Circuit said the actions were nevertheless prejudicial.

“Considering the cumulative effect of the two unpreserved errors with the violation of the order granting the motion in limine, as well as the strong possibility that the violation was intentional, we cannot say that the violation was harmless,” the court ruled, ordering a new trial.

At Anidjar & Levine, our South Florida car accident attorneys represent clients injured in auto accidents throughout the region, including in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Pompano Beach. We are happy to discuss your potential claim in a free initial consultation.

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