The First District Court of Appeal recently issued an opinion explaining the breadth of a trial court’s discretion in limiting parties’ opportunity to conduct voir dire. In Tallahassee Housing Authority v. Prather, the First District reversed a trial court’s order for a new trial after the trial court had erroneously concluded that one was necessary because it limited the plaintiff’s voir dire to sixty-eight minutes. No. 1D19-2457, 2020 Fla. App. LEXIS 14402 (Fla. 1st DCA Oct. 13, 2020), Slip Op. at 2. Although the parties had stipulated to three hours of voir dire per side, upon arrival to jury selection the trial court advised the parties of its intent to limit voir dire to one hour per side. Id. During voir dire, the court advised the plaintiff’s counsel when he had approximately twenty minutes remaining and when he was slightly over the limit the court allowed an additional two minutes to conclude. Id. at 2-3. The plaintiff’s counsel had an opportunity to question each prospective juror about a wide array of subjects, even exploring their television and radio preferences. Id. at 2-3.
The First District concluded that the trial court misinterpreted Carver v. Niedermayer, 920 So. 2d 123 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006), as imposing a bright-line test precluding such limitation over counsel’s objection and believing it was “bound by” that opinion to order a new trial. Prather, Slip Op. at 4. The district court explained that the aggrieved party in Carver repeatedly objected to the trial court’s limitation of its voir dire to thirty minutes and expressed being prejudiced because it could only question each juror for a couple of minutes. Prather, Slip Op. at 4. Thus, it distinguished Carver because the plaintiff in this case was afforded an opportunity to thoroughly question the prospective jurors—additionally the plaintiff only “initially objected to the time limit” and “agreed to wrap up his questioning without asking for more time or explaining why more time was needed.” Prather, Slip Op. at 4. In fact, the trial court “recognized that had such a request been made, it would have been granted.” Id. The First District explained that ultimately the Carver test “enforces the general theory that control of voir dire is largely within the trial court’s discretion unless a party demonstrates that discretion has been abused.” Id.
Overall, this opinion confirms that a trial court has broad discretion to impose time limitations without abusing its authority. This is an effective tool for trial counsel as there are many firms that intentionally try to push voir dire into a multiple day affair on simple cases.
About Ian Waldick:
Ian Waldick practices remotely from Tallahassee. Before joining the firm, he served as a Senior Central Staff Attorney for the Florida Supreme Court and briefly practiced administrative law in Tallahassee.
In addition to practicing law, Ian serves on the board of directors of St. Francis Wildlife Association, a local nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation organization. He also serves on several municipal public advisory committees for the City of Tallahassee and Leon County, including serving as Vice-Chair of the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Commission.