Monday, January 4, 2021

Judge Terrence R. Nealon Rejects Plaintiff's Request To Have His Children and Grandchildren on Screen To Watch His Jury Trial

Judge Terrence R. Nealon of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas has issued an interesting decision regarding the logistics of a civil trial being conducted with COVID-19 Pandemic restrictions and precautions in place.

In Lackawanna County, certain larger courtrooms have been designated for use during trials due to the ability to allow for social distancing.  The additional measure of spreading the jury out in the jury box and out into the gallery has led the court to utilize technology to stream the trial proceedings to monitors and screens in other rooms in the courthouse in the event members of the parties' families or members of the public wish to view the proceedings.

In the medical malpractice case of Snyder v. Scranton Hospital Co., LLC, No. 19-CV-83 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Dec. 31, 2020 Nealon, J.), the Plaintiffs filed a motion in limine seeking to have the court allow a displaying of the Plaintiff's children and grandchildren on monitors and screens in the courtroom via the Zoom videoconferencing platform during the course of opening statements and the closing arguments.  

The Plaintiffs' stated purpose behind this request was to allow the Plaintiff's attorney to introduce the family to the jury, to enable the jury to see and understand that the Plaintiff had a close knit and supportive family, and also to allow the family members to observe the openings and the closings.

The Defendants opposed the Plaintiff's request and asserted that the Plaintiff's request served no legitimate evidentiary purpose and was instead designed to inflame the jury from the outset of the trial and to garner improper sympathy from the jury in favor of the Plaintiffs.

Judge Nealon denied the Plaintiffs' request on several grounds and noted that granting such a request "would create more problems than it would solve."  See Op. at p. 7.

First, he confirmed that, logistically, the members of the Plaintiff's families did not have to be displayed on a screen in the courtroom in order for those family members to be able watch the proceedings on a screen in another room.

Judge Nealon additionally observed that, to the extent the Plaintiffs wanted to introduce family members during the course of the trial, the Plaintiffs could call those family members as witnesses at trial.

It was also noted, that in an effort to avoid any alleged prejudice to the Plaintiff from the absence of the Plaintiffs' family members in the courtroom during the course of the trial, the Court could issue a cautionary instruction to the jury explaining that the family members would be watching the trial from another room in the courthouse due to the jury's use of the gallery for socially distant seating purposes under the COVID-19 restrictions.

Judge Nealon also confirmed that, to the extent the Plaintiffs sought to display their family members on the screen to the jury during openings and closing arguments as proof that the family was close knit and supportive of the injured Plaintiff, such a request would constitute improper opening or closing statements in that such would be an effort to introduce evidence at improper stages of the trial  Judge Nealon noted that it is a "hornbook rule" of law that opening statements and closing arguments are not part of the evidence and may not be considered by the jury as evidence in the case.  See Op. at p. 9.

The Court also noted that, while parties at trial are permitted to utilize visual aids during opening statements and closing arguments, the continuous display of the Plaintiff's family members on the screens and monitors in the courtroom would not be a proper use of demonstrative evidence under the circumstances presented here.  

The court reasoned that, in fact, the constant display of family members, including "restless" children trying to sit through protracted opening statements or closing arguments may even prove distracting or uncomfortable to a jury, and/or may prevent Plaintiff's counsel from the utilizing the screens in the courtroom to show other visual aids to the jury, such as medical records and the like.

Judge Nealon also agreed that the Defendants had articulated the possibility of prejudice in that the Defendants may be unfairly harmed before the first piece of admissible evidence is ever presented at trial if the Plaintiff's request to display family members on the screen during the opening statements was granted.  In so ruling, Judge Nealon noted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recognized that opening statements could be the most important part of a trial as a juror could develop a lasting impression of the case presented that stays with the juror throughout the duration of the trial and into the deliberations room.

In this regard, Judge Nealon agreed that there was a danger that the perpetual display of the Plaintiffs' children and grandchildren on screens before the presentation of any evidence could inflame the jury or generate sympathy such that the jury's attention may be improperly diverted from the statements and arguments of all counsel at the beginning and the end of the trial.

Weighing the fact that the Plaintiff's request could be handled satisfactorily by other means against the potential harm that would result from granting the Plaintiff's request, the Court ultimately decided to deny the Motion.

Anyone wishing to review this decision may click this LINK.

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