Wednesday, July 18, 2007, 7:21 AM

COA Vacates Judgment Because Jury Charge Didn't Treat Plaintiffs Individually

Yesterday the Court of Appeals (COA) vacated a judgment and ordered a new trial based on a faulty jury instruction in a defamation case. The reason: the instruction lumped the two plaintiffs together, rather than treating them individually. A separate instruction should've been given for each plaintiff as to each defendant. The case is Blyth v. McCrary.

The case arose after defamatory documents were circulated in Haywood County about Blyth, owner of Elk Country Realty. Blyth and his company sued several defendants, some of whom were competitors in the real estate market.

Here's the offending jury instruction, which was given with respect to each defendant: "Did [name of defendant] libel (or slander) the plaintiffs, James D. Blyth and Elk Country Realty?"

The COA held the instruction was defective because it tended to mislead jurors into believing they could find in plaintiffs' favor only if they believed that both plaintiffs were defamed, and that defendants should win if only one plaintiff was defamed. "Failure to submit separate issues or at least to instruct the jury that it was to answer the issue separately for each plaintiff was error," the court held.

The error identified by the COA is all too common with jury instructions in multi-party cases. To avoid prolix jury charges and interrogatories in multi-party, mult-claim cases, parties and judges often lump plaintiffs and/or defendants together, without giving the jury an opportunity to parse each claim and treat each party individually. Lumping defendants together can prejudice innocent defendants by having them tied to parties the jury may want to tag with liability; if the jury isn't given separate interrogatories, it is faced with an all or nothing choice, implicating defendants' due process rights. Yesterday's case shows that this lumping problem may also affect plaintiffs.

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