The Fourth District Court of Appeal recently found improper a jury instruction concerning aggravation of a preexisting condition where no evidence had been presented at trial to support that instruction. Sanchez v. Martin, 4D17-1731 (Fla. 4th DCA, June 6, 2018).
In this personal injury accident action arising out of an auto accident, the Plaintiff introduced evidence that his injuries were caused entirely from the accident. He did not introduce evidence of pre-existing injuries, which had been exacerbated by the accident. The defense refuted Plaintiff’s causation theory and presented evidence of Plaintiff’s preexisting conditions to show “a continuing course of conduct over many years from which the jury could reasonably conclude that Plaintiff’s condition immediately prior to trial was a natural result of the development of a disease which was engendered or began many years ago.” In other words, the defense introduced evidence of Plaintiff’s preexisting conditions, not to show that the accident exacerbated them, but rather to show that Plaintiff’s alleged injuries predated and were casually unrelated to the accident.
Nevertheless, the trial court instructed the jury on aggravation of preexisting conditions. The appellate court found this to be error because the instruction was not predicated upon any facts in evidence, a prerequisite to any jury instruction. The appellate court also found that the erroneous instruction may have contributed to the verdict and reversed and remanded for a new trial on the issue of causation and damages as those two issues were inextricably entwined.
An important takeaway from this case is that jury instructions must be scrutinized throughout trial until all the evidence is presented. An instruction that the parties may believe is appropriate based on anticipated evidence, may be inappropriate based on the actual evidence. Counsel should take care to reevaluate the proposed jury instructions before the charge conference. It is often helpful to have an appellate specialist to assist you with this task.
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