The Importance of Objecting to an Improper Jury Charge

Vokes Estate v. Palmer, 2012 ONCA 510 (C.A.)

This appeal decision illustrates the importance of objecting to a judge's charge to the jury, as well as the difficulty in overturning jury verdicts on appeal.

The case involved a fatal motor vehicle accident.  The defendant appealed the jury`s verdict, arguing that the trial judge failed to properly charge the jury with respect to s. 139(1) of the Highway Traffic Act (concerning the duty owed by the deceased on entering a highway) and failed to instruct the jury on the proper range of damages for loss of care, guidance and companionship.  The defendant also argued the jury award was gross and excessive.

The trial judge advised that he intended to charge the jury by omitting the words underlined below.

That section therefore imposes a very positive duty on Michelle Vokes in this case, breach of which would clearly constitute negligence. On the other hand, this positive duty on Ms. Vokes does not relieve Mr. Palmer who was operating his motor vehicle on the [through] highway from exercising ordinary care in the circumstances.

Counsel for the defendant did not object to the charge and in fact described the charge as an
“exercise in perfection”.  The Court of Appeal held that while the failure to object is not fatal, in most cases, an alleged misdirection or non-direction will not result in a new trial unless a substantial wrong or miscarriage of justice has occurred.

The remainder of the appeal was also dismissed, as under s. 118 of the Courts of Justice Act the judge may give a range of damages, but is not obligated to do so.  In addition, the threshold for overturning a jury`s award of damages is very high.  The assessment must be so inordinately high as to constitute a wholly erroneous assessment of the loss of care, guidance and companionship, which was not the case. 

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