In litigation, it is common for a plaintiff to amend their complaint. They may amend to add additional parties. To add new claims. To change the factual allegations. Or, to change the theme of their case.
Most of the time, complaints are not verified by the plaintiff. Instead, complaints are drafted and signed by the plaintiff’s counsel.
A question becomes: how prior reiterations of a complaint can be used against the plaintiff to show they are a bunch of “liars” by making amendments to their complaint. Sounds prejudicial to the plaintiff, right? Particularly if there is a jury.
The reality is that amending complaints for various reasons is routine. Doing so does NOT make the plaintiff a liar and is not a vehicle that a defendant should use to create this inference. A defendant that tries to do so simply wants to detract from the substantive facts and issues.
This was the scenario in a construction defect water intrusion case where the plaintiffs had amended their complaint a few times. The defendant, during a jury trial, wanted to capitalize on these amendments by painting the picture that the plaintiffs were liars by blaming multiple parties for the exact same defect and damage. This was the theme the defendant wanted to reinforce to the jury.
Indeed, during opening statement, the defendant told the jury:
You know, I was thinking about this case last night, probably 2:00 in the morning, and I said how do I explain to these people what this case is about. And it’s the triple dip. That’s what this case is about. Okay. Triple dip. They’re blaming three separate parties for the same damages. [The defendant] now, here. Previously, it was [a different party] and [a different party]. Okay. The triple dip.
In fact, you’re not going to have to believe one of the witnesses in our case[-]in[-]chief to get there. You only have to accept that from the plaintiffs, what they said, under oath in a court filing, what they said in their pleadings. Admitting that it was [a different party].
[T]hey stated, admitted, that [a different party] negligently installed the windows and damaged them by doing so. Again, you’re not going to have to believe a single witness from our side. This is what the plaintiffs themselves tell you … occurred.
[The plaintiff] lied about who caused the damage to the window frames and the glass. It was [a different party] that actually caused that damage. No money should be award to CG—from [the now defendant] to the plaintiffs for any damage to the frames for the glass. None. We didn’t do it.
Hernandez v. CGI Windows and Doors, Inc., 2022 WL 610122, *2 (Fla. 3d DCA 2022)
Then, during the trial, the defendant introduced an amended complaint against a different party into evidence and used it to cross-examine a witness. The defendant also used a motion filed in the case against a different defendant to cross examine the plaintiff.
During closing argument, the defendant, capitalizing on its theme, argued to the jury that the plaintiffs were liars and seeking to recover the same damages from multiple parties based on the prior pleadings. The plaintiff told the jury in closing:
The lawsuit against [a different party], the stucco contractor, I told you in the open that they were going to, from their own mouths, admit that they sued [this different party] for the damage caused to the window frames and the glass, such that they had to be replaced.
The lawsuit against [another different party] allege[d] improper installation and damage to the windows. I mistakenly sued [this different party]. I had to file a motion with the Court, that had to wait to be heard in a hearing about a month later, that was granted. It wasn’t dismissed for another 2 months. They had to accidentally pay $10 to the Court to have [this different party] served. It wasn’t a mistake. They thought that at the time. It’s called an admission from a party. That kind of evidence, in the face of their lies in the Court, is good evidence that you have to pay attention to.
Is that justice? Is that something you folks should reward? Do you reward liars? No. You do not, and you shouldn’t here. Especially not here. Not in this case.
Hernandez, supra, at *3.
The jury found in favor of the defendant. The defendant’s theme of the case painting the plaintiffs as liars based on prior amendments to the pleading worked. Or did it?
At first blush, the defendant’s theory sounds smart – prejudicing the jury based on prior amendments to pleadings that included different parties relating to the construction defect water intrusion claim.
However, there was a problem.
It has long been held that “inconsistent positions taken by a party through the pleadings he [or she] files in an action may not [ordinarily] be used by an opposing party as proof of an issue.” Hernandez, supra, at *3 quoting Hines v. Trager Const. Co., 188 So.2d 826, 829 (Fla. 1st DCA 1966).
The exception to this is if a party manifested an adoption or belief in the pleading’s truth; “absent such a particularized showing, unsworn pleadings and motions cannot be introduced during trial. Hernandez, supra(internal quotation omitted).
None of the prior complaints the defendant introduced during trial were verified. And the defendant introduced nothing in the record to substantiate the required particularized showing. Thus, it was ERROR for an amended complaint to be introduced into evidence and telling the jury what it alleged.
Moreover, the defendant exacerbated the error because it created the inference that such former defendants in prior complaints had settled with the plaintiff.
It is well-established that Florida law ‘prohibits the admission at trial of any evidence of settlement or dismissal of a defendant.’ This is so ‘regardless of whether it is presented to the jury through evidence or some other means.’ The law ‘admits no exceptions, and violation of the prohibition is reversible error.’ That is because knowledge of a settlement with another tortfeasor is ‘immediately and completely destructive to the possibility of a fair trial between the plaintiff and defendant,’ as ‘it is a practical impossibility to eradicate from the jury’s minds the consideration that where there has been a payment there must have been liability.’
Observing these principles, nearly a decade ago, this court reiterated the adage that although ‘it may be permissible to point to an ‘empty chair,’ it is not permissible to point out that the ‘empty chair’ was once a defendant in the case. In accord with this authority, we have repeatedly found that the mere inference of settlement is sufficient to warrant a new trial.
Hernandez, supra, at *4 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
It is clear an error occurred in this trial. But then the court needs to determine whether the error that occurred was a harmless error: “To test for harmless error, the beneficiary of the error has the burden to prove that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict. Alternatively stated, the beneficiary of the error must prove that there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict.” Hernandez, supra, at *3 (quotation and citation omitted).
Here, the appellate court found that the error was not harmless, and was harmful, as the defendant “shifted the focus of the trial from the justiciable issue of negligence to whether [plaintiffs] were ‘lying’ and ‘tripple-dipping,’ as demonstrated by the prior lawsuits, pleadings, and motion.” Id.
Trial strategy and themes are important. Crucial. Here, the defendant’s prejudicial theme worked, until it did not, and the new trial will require the defendant to shift the focus to actual facts and issues.
Please contact David Adelstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.