“Jury instructions should use easily understandable language that is not argumentative, repetitive, or negative. Since 1967, the purpose of the Florida Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instructions (“Committee”) ‘has been to prepare instructions that express the applicable issues and guiding legal principles briefly and in simple, understandable language, without argument, without unnecessary repetition and without reliance on negative charges.’” (Fla. Std. Jury Instr. (Civ.), “The Theory and Technique of Charging a Jury with These Instructions”; see also Wood vy. Equitable Life Assur. Soc. of U.S. (1968) 212 So. 2d 77, 78.)
“In response to the Jury Innovations Committee's recommendation with regard to questions by jurors, we adopt new civil and criminal rules and authorize the publication and use of new civil and criminal jury instructions. New Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.452 requires a court to permit jurors to submit written questions directed to witnesses or the court and provides the procedure for doing so.” (In re Amendments to Rules, 967 So. 2d 178, 181 (Fla. 2007); see also Cavanaugh v. Stryker Corp. (2020) No. 4D19-523, at *13 citing Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.452 [“Because a juror's questions may reveal a juror's impression of the evidence that has already been presented, the concern over ‘tactical gamesmanship’ is even greater when jurors have been permitted to ask questions.])
How to Structure the Motion
“A jury instruction is immaterial if it is argumentative, repetitive or negative, regardless of whether or not it correctly states the law. Thus, a jury instruction that may be a correct statement of the law does not excuse the use of argumentative, repetitive, or negative language.” (See Gutierrez v. State (2015) 177 So. 3d 226, 230 [“[L]lack of corroboration is a proper subject of argument, not jury instruction.”]; Seaboard Sys. R.R., Inc. v. Mells (1988) 528 So. 2d 934, 938 [“[A|lthough the charges in question correctly stated the principles of law, ‘such charges as framed are essentially argumentative, repetitive, and adequately covered by the general charges on negligence.’”)
In fact, the standard jury instructions are preferred, and the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure require a trial court to explain any variance from the standard instructions. (See Gutierrez, supra, 177 So. 3d at 230 [“Standard jury instructions are presumed correct and are preferred over special instructions.”]; BellSouth Telecommunications, Inc. v. Meeks (2003) 863 So. 2d 287, 292.])
A trial court should not vary from the standard instructions unless the “applicable Standard Jury Instruction is erroneous or inadequate.” (Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.470(b). If the trial court deviates from the standard instructions, the court is required to state, on the record, why it modified an applicable standard instruction or gave an additional special instruction. (Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.470(b).)
Procedures for Juror Questions
Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.452 provides the procedure for the court's handling of questions from jurors. The three parts outlined are questions permitted, the procedure, and objections and are as follows:
- The court shall permit jurors to submit to the court written questions directed to witnesses or to the court. Such questions will be submitted after all counsel have concluded their questioning of a witness.
- Any juror who has a question directed to the witness or the court shall prepare an unsigned, written question and give the question to the bailiff, who will give the question to the judge.
- Out of the presence of the jury, the judge will read the question to all counsel, allow counsel to see the written question, and give counsel an opportunity to object to the question.
The Court’s Decision
Giving an argumentative jury instruction may be reversible error. (See Smith v. Canevary (1989) 553 So. 2d 1312, 1312-16 [holding it is reversible error to give a special jury instruction on doctrine of unavoidable accident, absent extraordinary circumstances, because instruction is ‘unnecessary, argumentative, and may mislead or confuse the jury as to the legal standard of negligence in Florida’”); Sierra v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc. (1994) 646 So. 2d 264 [reversing trial court for giving jury an instruction that tended to endorse argumentative position of defendant and was otherwise unnecessary and potentially confusing.])
“Florida trial judges have discretion to allow jurors to submit questions to be asked of witnesses.” (Washington v. State (2007) 955 So. 2d 1165, 1170 citing Morris v. State (2006) 931 So.2d 821; Watson v. State (1994) 651 So.2d 1159, 1163.) “In these decisions, the Florida Supreme Court has authorized the practice, but it is important to point out that the court did not endorse it. The existence of discretionary authority to allow jurors to ask questions does not imply that juror questions must be allowed or even that they should be allowed.” (Id.)