Appellate Review of Erroneous Jury Instructions in Louisiana

Assuming that any error has been adequately preserved on appeal, what is the effect of an erroneous jury instruction? There are two possible situations here. The first is when the jury is simply given the wrong law, as in Berg v. Zummo, 786 So.2d 708 (La. 2001). In these kinds of cases, there are no real factual issues; the issue is simply what law applies to the given facts. The appellate court, in a rather straightforward manner, applies the correct law to the facts to determine the outcome.

The more complicated situation is one in which the jury’s factual findings were arguably influenced by the erroneous or omitted instruction. In Nicholas v. Allstate Ins. Co., 99-2522 (La. 8/31/00), 765 So.2d 1017, 1023, the supreme court set forth the law applicable to appellate review in such cases:

Louisiana jurisprudence is well established that an appellate court must exercise great restraint before it reverses a jury verdict because of erroneous jury instructions. Melancon v. Sunshine Const., Inc., 97-1167 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/15/98), 712 So.2d 1011. The basis for this rule of law is that trial courts are given broad discretion in formulating jury instructions and it is well accepted that a trial court judgment will not be reversed so long as the charge correctly states the substance of the law. United States v. L’Hoste, 609 F.2d 796, 805 (5 Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 833, 101 S.Ct. 104, 66 L.Ed.2d 39 (1980). However, when a jury is erroneously instructed and the error probably contributed to the verdict, an appellate court must set aside the verdict. Smith v. Travelers Ins. Co., 430 So.2d 55 (La.1983). In the assessment of an alleged erroneous jury instruction, it is the duty of the reviewing court to assess such impropriety in light of the entire jury charge to determine if they adequately provide the correct principles of law as applied to the issued framed in the pleadings and evidence and whether they adequately guided the jury in its deliberation. Kaplan v. Missouri-Pacific R.R. Co., 409 So.2d 298, 304-05 (La.App. 3 Cir.1981). Ultimately, the determinative question is whether the jury instructions misled the jury to the extent that it was prevented from dispensing justice. Brown v. White, 405 So.2d 555, 560 (La.App. 4 Cir.1981), aff’d, 430 So.2d 16 (La.1982).

See also Medine v. Roniger, 03-3436 (La. 7/2/04) (same). If this test is satisfied, that is, if the court is convinced that the jury was misled to the point that it was prevented from dispensing justice, then the jury’s verdict is not entitled to any deference on appeal, and the manifest error standard of review is abandoned. The appellate court then engages in de novo review of the entire record. In effect, because of Louisiana courts’ disinclination to remand for new trials under Gonzales v. Xerox Corp., 320 So.2d 163 (La. 1975), the ultimate effect of improper instructions is typically loss of the right to trial by jury.

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