Closing arguments are one of the most pivotal parts of a trial. A well-tuned closing argument will sway both the hearts and minds of jurors, and will resonate with them as they begin deliberations. Occasionally, however, the boundaries of appropriate advocacy get crossed as trial lawyers endeavor to win at all costs on behalf of their clients. According to the New Jersey Law Journal, one such situation came to light just last week in the Garden State: the New Jersey Supreme Court set aside a $1.75 million verdict, saying a plaintiff’s lawyer went too far in his efforts to sway a jury.
In the case of Risko v. Thompson Muller Automotive Group, the plaintiff’s lawyer reportedly told the jury that if, during deliberations, a fellow juror says he or she doesn’t believe in awarding damages of over a million dollars, that juror is “ignoring the law” and should be reported to the judge. Though taken to task by the judge for that and other remarks, the jury still convened and awarded well over a million dollars in damages to the plaintiff’s estate. Ultimately the case found its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which determined that, indeed, the plaintiff’s lawyer’s remarks warranted a new damages trial.
The court’s verdict serves as a reminder about how to build a good closing argument – and the pitfalls to avoid. Start with the facts of the case that best support your theme, follow that with case law that corroborates the facts you’ve named, and deliver your message with your own engaging, personable style. In other words, follow a trail of logical reasoning and stay away from remarks that could be considered prejudicial or overreaching. It isn't always easy to deliver an emotionally engaging, persuasive closing without slipping into manipulation or hyperbole. But it's a challenge one is best advised to meet.