Written by: Samuel O. Weaver
On March 15, 2018, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that a $30 million dollar verdict in Fulton County State Court resulting from severe injuries to a woman’s hand and arm must be retried. “Because the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on a substantial and vital issue presented by the pleadings and the evidence—the defendant’s theory that his alleged negligence per se was unknowing and unintentional—we must reverse and remand for a new trial,” Presiding Judge Christopher McFadden wrote for a panel that included Judges Elizabeth Branch and Charlie Bethel.
The injury at issue in this case was caused by a crash that happened in 2012 when Abdulmohsen Almassud and Luisa Mezquital approached each other driving in opposite directions on a road in Forsyth County. Almassud’s Jeep crossed the center line and crashed into Mezquital’s car. Mezquital sustained severe injuries to her hand in the collision. When Mezquital sued, she alleged that the Jeep was unsafe. Almassud claimed the steering failed and blamed Oh’s Auto Center for a faulty repair.
Mezquital alleged that Almassud was “negligent per se,” violating O.C.G.A. § 40-8-7 (driving an unsafe vehicle) as well as O.C.G.A. § 40-6-40 (driving in the wrong lane of travel) and O.C.G.A. § 40-6-48 (failure to maintain lane). Negligence per se is the doctrine whereby an act is considered negligent because it violates a statute. As noted by Judge McFadden, “Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of negligence per se, the ‘burden then shifts to the defendant to show that the violation was unintentional and in the exercise of ordinary care.’”
In Georgia, the jury is given jury charges (“instructions”) before commencing deliberations; these charges are read by the judge, and can be provided to the jury in written form. The purpose of these charges is to explain to the jury the law that applies to the case. The jury’s job is to decide which facts it believes and then apply its factual findings to the law as provided in the jury instructions. Charges are generally submitted by the parties, subject to the judge’s approval, but the judge is also required to instruct (or charge) the jury on “every substantial and vital issue presented by the evidence, and on every theory of the case.”
In this case, the defendant requested a jury charge stating that the defendant, to be liable for violation of the statute prohibiting driving an unsafe vehicle, must be aware of the dangerous condition of the vehicle. The trial judge declined to give the charge, but allowed the defendant to argue the lack of knowledge of the dangerous condition and the defendant’s exercise of care.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court had erroneously failed to give a charge on the requirement of the defendant’s knowledge of the dangerous condition in his vehicle. Even if the defendant had not properly requested the charge, the appeals court ruled, the issue was a substantial and vital theory of the defense, and therefore the failure to give the instruction was erroneous. “It is the duty of the trial court, whether requested or not, to give the jury appropriate instructions on every substantial and vital issue presented by the evidence, and on every theory of the case,” McFadden said.
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