Leavy and Styles v. Ceranski

In Leavy and Styles v. Ceranski, 185 Ariz. 448, 916 P.2d 1164 (App. 1996), the defendant in a personal injury lawsuit arising from a two-vehicle accident directly violated court orders by telling the jury in opening statement that an expert witness would say a witness to the accident was highly credible and that emergency room records stated the plaintiff was likely unrestrained at the time of the accident. 188 Ariz. at 71, 932 P.2d at 1342. Later, the defendant again violated the court's order by asking a witness whether plaintiff was wearing his seatbelt immediately after the accident. Id. Finally, although the parties were not to litigate the issue of plaintiff's possible alcohol usage before the accident, the defendant repeatedly referred to the issue during trial. Id. The issue of fault was close, but the jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. Id. at 71-72, 932 P.2d at 1342-43. The supreme court held that a new trial was warranted because the defendant's misconduct deprived the plaintiff of a fair trial. Id. at 73-74, 932 P.2d at 1344-45. Recognizing the difficulty in determining the probability that misconduct in a close case actually influenced the verdict, the court held that such probability must be found "when there has been significant misconduct affecting the essential rights of a litigant and when the very nature of the misconduct makes it impossible to determine the extent of prejudice." Id. at 73, 932 P.2d at 1344. The court further stated a trial court should find prejudice when, as in the case before it: (1) the misconduct was significant, especially if it involves deliberate violations of rules or court orders; (2) the misconduct was prejudicial in nature because it involved important issues in a close case; (3) the misconduct was apparently successful. Id.