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Florida Fourth DCA affirms order granting plaintiff new trial in motor vehicle wrongful death case, finding that trial court improperly rejected plaintiff counsel’s race-neutral justification for exercise of peremptory strike of last African American in jury venire

On April 14, 2021, in Lafayette, et al., v. Moody, et al., No. 4D18-3657, the Florida Fourth DCA affirmed a trial court granting a new trial to the plaintiff in a wrongful death/motor vehicle negligence lawsuit arising from a highway accident in which a tractor-trailer jackknifed and struck the decedent’s car. During jury selection, plaintiff’s counsel sought to exercise a peremptory strike of the last remaining African American in a jury venire, offering as a race-neutral reason the fact that the prospective juror’s husband was a truck driver. The trial court denied the strike, focusing on the racial makeup of the jury and a minority group’s right to serve on a jury. The Fourth DCA noted that “peremptories are presumed to be exercised in a nondiscriminatory manner,” quoting from Melbourne v. State, 679 So. 2d 759, 764 (Fla. 1996), and stated that there was nothing in the record to substantiate the trial court’s finding that the proffered reason for the strike was pretextual. Furthermore, under the Melbourne test, it was the defendant and not the plaintiff who had the burden to prove “purposeful racial discrimination.” See 679 So. 2d at 764. The Fourth DCA opined that instead of recognizing the fallacy in the defendant’s argument and holding them to their burden, the trial court shifted that burden to the plaintiff and forced her to come up with other reasons for striking the juror, and finding those reasons also unpersuasive, improperly denied her challenge.

On a separate issue, the Fourth DCA also concluded that the trial court erred by allowing the jury to hear evidence related to the defendant’s driving history because the citations the defendant previously received “bore no similarity to the circumstances at issue and had no relevance to the issue in the case [the defendant’s alleged negligence].” The Court noted that there was no evidence that the administrative citations the defendant received, including his citation for backing into a parked car, were an indicator of his competence while driving on the open road.