Prejudicial Closing Argument? Lake Charles Car Accident Trial Invokes the “Golden Rule”

Louisiana courts, like those in most other states, enforce a prohibition in jury trials known as the “golden rule.” During a closing argument, the plaintiff’s attorney may not ask the members of the jury to imagine themselves in the place of the plaintiff when deciding how much to award the plaintiff in damages. The rationale for prohibiting such a request is that the jury’s sympathy may be unfairly invoked, resulting in an inappropriately large award of damages. So, while the jury should not be asked to imagine themselves going through the same experience that the plaintiff endured, the plaintiff’s attorney may simply direct the jury to consider the pain and suffering the plaintiff has been through.

An alleged violation of the golden rule was one basis of the appeal in Tingle v. American Home Insurance Co., No. 10-71 (La.App. 3d Cir. June 11, 2010). On March 5, 2006, Brian Montgomery was driving his tractor-trailer while intoxicated in Lake Charles. He ran a red light and slammed into the car of Levi and Tasha Tingle. The Tingles’ two-year-old daughter, Madison, who was also in the car, was killed; her parents suffered severe injuries. The Tingles settled with Montgomery’s employer, Boots Smith, for the limits of his primary liability insurance policy. The Tingles then filed suit against Smith’s excess insurance carrier, American Home Insurance Co. At the trial, the jury awarded the Tingles over $10 million in damages, of which approximately half were punitive damages.

On appeal, American argued that the trial court erred in permitting the Tingles’ attorney to “implore the jury to put themselves in the [Tingles’] shoes.” (The court did not include in its opinion exactly what the Tingles’ attorney said in his closing argument.) But the court declared that it “prefer[s] to allow the trial court latitude to conduct a trial,” citing a line of Louisiana cases espousing the view that

“Great latitude is permitted in argument before a civil jury, subject to regulation by the trial court whose duty is to confine argument within proper bounds.” Temple v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, 316 So.2d 783 (La.App. 1st Cir. 1975).
“Unless the contrary is shown, the trial court’s rulings regarding alleged improper argument are presumed to have been made within the trial court’s discretion. Luquette v. Bouillion, 184 So.2d 766 (La.App. 3rd Cir. 1966).

Incidentally, the court also dismissed by the same reasoning American’s similar argument that the trial court erroneously permitted the Tingles’ counsel to prejudice the jury by emphasizing that Montgomery was from out-of-state. The court noted that American objected to this “home cooking” during the trial, but the trial judge apparently “did not find [it] particularly inflammatory.” As a result, the court found “no abuse of the trial court’s great discretion” in overruling the objection.

Although this appeal was ultimately resolved with the Tingles’ receiving sizable damage awards, things could have turned out quite differently if the trial judge had found their attorney’s statements inflammatory or prejudicial. With so much discretion afforded the trial judge, it would be foolish for a plaintiff to risk making an argument that could result in a mistrial at such a late stage, only further delaying a damages award. For this reason, a plaintiff should always select competent trial counsel who can deliver a compelling and persuasive closing argument while avoiding the prejudice minefield.