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Shockley v. Lewis

Superior Court of Delaware, Kent

June 29, 2015

FRENA LEWIS, Defendant.

Submitted: March 18, 2015

Upon Plaintiff's Motion for New Trial Denied.

Benjamin A. Schwartz, Esquire and Robert C. Collins, II, Esquire of Schwartz & Schwartz, Dover, Delaware; attorneys for Plaintiff.

Jeffrey A. Young, Esquire of Young & McNelis, Dover, Delaware; attorney for Defendant.


William L. Witham, Jr. Resident Judge

Before the Court is Jeffrey Shockley's ("Plaintiff") Motion for New Trial. At trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Frena Lewis ("Defendant"), finding that she did not proximately cause injury to the Plaintiff. Plaintiff now argues that no reasonable jury could have come to the conclusion that the Defendant was not negligent, but for comments made by Defense Counsel during his opening statement.

On a Motion for a New Trial pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 59, the Court presumes that the jury verdict is correct.[1] On a Motion for a New Trial, "[t]he Court will only set aside a verdict as insufficient if it is clear that the verdict was the result of passion, prejudice, partiality, corruption, or if it is clear that the jury disregarded the evidence or law."[2] Stated differently, a jury verdict will not be set aside unless it is against the great weight of the evidence, the verdict shocks the Court's conscience, or the Court is otherwise convinced that the jury "disregarded the applicable rules of law."[3] The Court "will not set aside a jury's verdict unless the evidence preponderates so heavily against the jury verdict that a reasonable juror could not have reached the result."

__This case stems from an automobile accident that occurred on November 11, 2011, whereby Plaintiff was rear-ended and suffered injuries, including back pain. Plaintiff alleges that he sustained personal injuries from the car crash. This case was tried initially from March 11-12, 2015. The trial resulted in the jury finding that Defendant was not negligent.

On February 17, 2015, the Plaintiff filed his Motion in Limine to exclude photographs of the Defendant's vehicle after the motor vehicle accident. The Court ruled that the photographs were inadmissible pursuant to Davis v. Maute.[4] The Court intended to exclude any photographs of the Defendant's vehicle because it felt that the jury would infer from the photographs, regardless of any limiting instruction given, that Plaintiff's injuries would correlate to the damage to the vehicle, which is explicitly prohibited by Davis.

The Defendant filed its Motion for Reargument on March 8, 2015, arguing that this Court misinterpreted Davis because it held that photographs that demonstrate the extent of damages to vehicles in an accident are inadmissible in the absence of an expert available to testify, granted, a narrow construction.

The Court failed to see how these photographs would not have an impact on the jury in the manner specifically prohibited by Davis. The Defendant would have had this Court allow the photographs in so the jury may make a determination of the Plaintiff's credibility at trial. However, the Court did not find this line of reasoning so probative as to outweigh the prejudicial effect the photos would have had on the jury. That is, that the Plaintiff's injuries correlated to the damage to the vehicle. The Court noted in the Order for the Motion for Reargument, that "The Defense is arguing, as its sole line of reasoning [...] that they are necessary for a jury to evaluate the Plaintiff's credibility. The Court finds this is not a proper purpose for admissibility per the reasoning in Davis and its progeny." Lastly, the Plaintiff's motion concerning the exclusion of photographs dealt solely with the issue of the pictures being introduced at trial. The motion did not in anyway touch upon any oral statements Counsel might make in front of the jury. The Court denied the Defendant's Motion for Reargument pursuant to Delaware Superior Court Civil Rule 59(e).[5]

Plaintiff's Motion for New Trial challenges the verdict based on Plaintiff's belief that the Defendant inappropriately suggested to the jury that a lack of damage to Plaintiff's vehicle inferred no injury to the Plaintiff, violating Davis v. Maute.[6]Plaintiff requests that this Court not only grant the motion, but also extend its Order on the Motion in Limine to exclude photographic evidence, to include a ban on mentioning the lack of damage to the Defendant's motor vehicle in any future trial.

The Plaintiff now comes before this Court arguing that Defense Counsel circumvented Davis, when his argument allegedly led the jury to infer that the Plaintiff did not suffer any injury. However, Plaintiff fails to give this Court any specific dialogue by Defense Counsel that is alleged to violate Davis, and the Court is forced to hypothesize as to what statements Plaintiff's Counsel is referring.[7]Plaintiff believes after opening statements the Court should have declared a mistrial as opposed to admonishing the jury, because it was at that moment that the jury was improperly tainted. The Plaintiff takes issue with Defense Counsel because he "elicited from both plaintiff and defendant testimony concerning a lack of apparent damage to Ms. Lewis' vehicle."[8]

Plaintiff cites Defense Counsel's opening remarks as improper. Immediately thereafter Plaintiff's counsel requested this Court give either a curative instruction or grant a mistrial. The Trial Judge reminded Counsel that a preliminary instruction was already given to the jury, and gave a curative instruction to the Jury. The Jury was not to consider Plaintiff nor Defense Counsel's statements as evidence. Plaintiff's Counsel then suggested that the Defendant made reference to ...

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