Apportionment of Damages Between the City and the Contractor Who Negligently Set Up Lane Closures for Its Highway Work Was Not Supported by the Weight of the Evidence—New Trial for Apportionment of Damages Ordered/Two-Justice Dissenting Opinion Argued that Plaintiffs’ Counsel’s Vouching for His Own Credibility and Attacking the Credibility of Defense Witnesses In Summation Warranted a New Trial
The First Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Manzanet-Daniels, over a two-justice dissenting opinion, determined the weight of the evidence did not support a 65%/35% apportionment of damages to the city (65%) and the contractor (35%) who set up lane closures for highway repair work. Plaintiff was severely injured in an accident which the jury found was the result of the failure to adequately warn drivers of upcoming lane closures. Because the lane closures were the responsibility of the contractor, the majority determined the 65%/35% damages apportionment was not supported the weight of the evidence and sent the matter back for a new trial on the apportionment of liability. Much of the opinion, including the entirety of the dissenting opinion, focused on the propriety of remarks made by plaintiffs’ counsel during summation (vouching for his own credibility, attacking the credibility of defense witnesses, etc.):
It is well settled that trial counsel is afforded wide latitude in presenting arguments to a jury in summation … . During summation, an attorney “remains within the broad bounds of rhetorical comment in pointing out the insufficiency and contradictory nature of a plaintiff’s proofs without depriving the plaintiff of a fair trial” … . However, an attorney may not “bolster his case . . . by repeated accusations that the witnesses for the other side are liars” …. .
Although the City failed to object to the bulk of the challenged comments during summation, the City moved for an immediate mistrial based on comments impugning defense counsel, the reference to “Wang and his gang,” and plaintiffs’ counsel’s allegedly vouching for his own credibility. We find that although some of the comments were highly inflammatory, they did not ” create a climate of hostility that so obscured the issues as to have made the trial unfair'” … . The jury had ample reason to question the testimony of Officer Pagano, lessening the danger that they were improperly influenced by plaintiff’s counsel’s remarks. Gregware v City of New York, 2015 NY Slip Op 06408, 1st Dept 8-4-15