A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

September 17, 2008

During jury selection in a car accident trial, the defense attorney (who had been hired by an insurance company to defend the case), told the jury panel: “I’m a consumer justice attorney, and I represent John Hooks, a merchant marine, not some fancy company, not some conglomerate.” The plaintiff’s attorney immediately objected and moved for a mistrial since the defense attorney had been hired by Hook’s insurance company. The trial judge denied the motion for mistrial.

On appeal, the First District Court of Appeal held the trial court abused its discretion in denying the mistrial because the defense attorney’s “egregious” statement was misleading, and was “nothing less than an appeal to the jury to protect that individual from a harmful verdict.” The appellate court noted that because Florida law prevents liability insurers from being named as parties in car accident cases, it would be impossible for the plaintiff’s attorney to refute the misleading statement, and therefore the jury verdict rendered in the case was a “miscarriage of justice.” Hollenbeck v. Hooks, 993 So. 2d 50 (Fla 1st DCA 2008).

This excellent opinion deals squarely with an improper voir dire technique that some insurance company lawyers have been using, in one fashion or another, for many years. Hopefully, this opinion will put an end to these kind of misleading statements (e.g. “Do you all understand that insurance is not an issue in this case?”). The statement by the insurance company lawyer in this case was particularly offensive because of his attempt to disguise himself as an attorney for consumers.