Thursday, September 6, 2018

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Provides Guidance on Preserving Appellate Issues on Jury Instructions

In the case of Jones v. Ott, No. 12 WAP 2017 (Pa. Aug. 21, 2018) (Op. by Wecht, J.), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court clarified the steps necessary to preserve for appeal any objections with regards to the trial court’s instructions to the jury at trial.  

This case arose out of a motor vehicle accident negligence case.

Prior to trial, the Plaintiff filed proposed Points for Charge with the court. Within those proposed Points for Charge were three (3) proposed instructions related to the Doctrine of Negligence Per Se.  

After trial commenced, but before the case was sent to the jury, the court held a charge conference with the attorneys involved.   Thereafter, the trial court provided its instructions to the court and did not include any instructions concerning negligence per se.  

In the courtroom, after charging the jurors, the trial court judge asked counsel whether there was anything with respect to the charge that either party wanted to put on the record.   The Plaintiff’s lawyer responded “I have no issues with the charge, Your Honor.”  

The jury returned a defense verdict.

The Plaintiff filed post-trial motions asserting, in part, that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury as to negligence per se.   The defense asserted that the Plaintiff had waived that issue by failing to lodge a timely objection at trial. The Plaintiff responded that the issue had been preserved by filing the written Proposed Points for Charge with the court and by raising the issue in a pre-trial motion.

The trial court denied the Plaintiff’s post-trial motion and the case went up the appellate ladder, eventually reaching this decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had granted review of the case, in part, in order to clarify the steps one may take to preserve a challenge to the trial court’s jury instructions in accordance with Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure  227.1.  

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that, since the Plaintiff failed to lodge a contemporaneous objection to the trial court’s instruction at trial or to state any objection when invited to do so by the court at the conclusion of the instructions, the Plaintiff’s challenge to the instructions was deemed to have been waived.  Accordingly, the lower court decisions were affirmed. 

Anyone wishing to review a copy of the Majority Opinion of this decision may click this LINK.

HERE is the Concurring Opinion by Chief Justice Saylor.

HERE is the Dissenting Opinion by Justice Dougherty.  

HERE is the Dissenting Opinion by Justice Mundy.

Commentary: The lesson here is to, at a minimum, raise to file Proposed Points for Charge with the instructions you desire prior to the start of the trial, make your voice heard on instructions desired at the Charge Conference, and place your position on the record at the conclusion of the jury instructions when the court invites you to do so.

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