(CN) – It was improper for a lawyer to warn jurors that they would be laughingstocks unless they found Orlando liable for a crash during a high-speed chase by police that killed an innocent bystander, a Florida appeals court ruled.
The lawsuit now up for retrial seeks damages for Carmen Pineiro, whose 21-year-old son died after his car was hit by a pickup truck being chased by Orlando police.
One of Pineiro’s witnesses testified that after the accident, Orlando police officers stood around, laughing, instead of trying to help any victims of the crash.
But two officers testified that the alleged laughter might have been a reaction to seeing one of the smaller officers help lift a vehicle.
In closing arguments, the court let Pineiro’s attorney reference this laughter.
“And if you don’t hold the city of Orlando accountable or you don’t compensate the mother and father of Edwin Alvarado in an amount equal to their harm that the City of Orlando caused, when you see the city of Orlando folks outside the courtroom or in the elevator or out in the parking garage, guess what they’re going to be doing? They are going to be doing exactly what they were doing at the scene of the accident and at the Citrus Bowl: laughing.”
Ultimately the jury determined that Orlando was 55 percent liable for the accident and that the pickup truck driver was 45 percent liable.
The fifth district state appeals court in Daytona reversed and remanded for a new trial last week, agreeing with the city that the “laughing” remark was improper.
“There was no legitimate basis for this inflammatory argument,” Judge Brian Lambert wrote for a three-judge panel. “It was a clearly calculated effort by Pineiro’s counsel, in his last comment to the jury in this hotly disputed trial, to elicit an emotional response from the jury, that, in order to avoid being laughed at, post-verdict, it must find the city liable.”
The judges also took issue with another statement from the attorney, who asked jurors: “How do you possibly put a figure on the value of pain and suffering for Edwin’s mother and father?”
Statements regarding the “value of a life” and “sending a message” are also not appropriate, according to the 17-page decision.
“The cumulative effect of the improper comments leads us to conclude that the city was deprived of a fair trial and that a new trial to cure the prejudice is required,” Lambert wrote.