Illinois Appellate Court Upholds Grant of New Trial in Wrongful Death Action Based on Defense Counsel’s Improper Comments During Closing Argument

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In addition to substantive rules that determine when someone is entitled to compensation, there are countless evidentiary and procedural rules that apply to legal proceedings. If a party fails to abide by these evidentiary and procedural rules, it can serve as the basis for a new trial. If a jury is exposed to evidence that it was not supposed to hear, it can unfairly prejudice the jury and skew its ability to apply the law to the facts of the case. As dedicated Chicago personal injury lawyers, we have substantial knowledge regarding the evidentiary and procedural rules that apply during legal proceedings and we will ensure that they are applied fairly in your case.

A recent Illinois appellate opinion provides an example of how an evidentiary rule can impact the outcome of litigation. The decedent’s wife, who was designated the independent administrator of her husband’s estate, brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the medical persons who cared for her husband up until his death, which resulted from a pulmonary embolism. A jury trial was conducted and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. The plaintiff moved for a new trial, arguing that the defendant’s lawyer ignored a pretrial motion in limine order that barred any mention of her husband’s refusal to be transferred to another hospital on the day that he died. The court found that the comments made by defense counsel in closing violated the motion in limine and were sufficiently prejudicial to warrant a new trial.

One of the defendants appealed the trial court’s grant of a new trial on the basis that the statements in the closing argument were not sufficiently prejudicial. The plaintiff objected to the controversial comment was made during the defense lawyer’s closing argument and the trial court sustained the objection, instructing the jury to ignore the comment. The defense lawyer’s main argument was that had the decedent been transferred to another hospital, he would have received a CT scan that would have revealed the pulmonary embolism and resulted in him receiving lifesaving treatment. The defense counsel asked the jury to place itself in the shoes of the defendant doctor at the time the patient presented and refused transfer to another hospital.

On review, the appellate court first started by reviewing the rules that apply to closing arguments, noting that attorneys have broad leeway in making arguments based on the evidence presented at trial and reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence. Attorneys are not permitted, however, to make unfair appeals to the jury’s emotions. The court cited precedent showing that it had routinely found it improper to elicit sympathy from the jury by asking the jury to place itself in the position of either party to the case, which it described as the Golden Rule. When reviewing whether a statement in closing argument violates the golden rule, the court must take the entire context of the argument into consideration.

Reviewing the record, the appellate court found that the defense lawyer’s golden rule argument was technically improper and accepted the lower court’s conclusion that the defense lawyer violated the pre-trial motion in limine order and that the violation was highly prejudicial. Accordingly, it upheld the lower court’s grant of a new trial.

If you were injured in a personal injury accident or lost someone you love in a wrongful death matter, the seasoned attorneys at Therman Law Offices are standing by to assist you. We understand how daunting the legal process can seem, which is why we offer a free consultation to help you start learning about your legal rights and options. To set up your appointment, call us at 773-545-8849 or contact us online.

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