THE IMPORTANCE OF EVIDENCE – AVOIDING INVOLUNTARY DISMISSAL AT TRIAL
In preparing to try any legal case, be it civil or criminal, one thing that can often be overlooked as the trial date approaches is the need to ensure that each element of each claim to be presented at trial is supported by actual admissible evidence. An invaluable tool for any defending party is the Motion for Involuntary Dismissal (or Motion for Directed Verdict in the criminal context), which can be made by a defending party at the close of the prosecuting party’s presentation of its case in chief. This motion tests the prosecuting party’s admitted evidence, and asks the Court to determine if the prosecuting party has established a prima facie claim for relief (meaning that evidence has been admitted into the record sufficient to support a factual inference establishing each element of the claim or claims presented to the Court). If a prosecuting party is not careful, this type of Motion can result in a defense ruling before the defending party even puts forth a single piece of evidence in support of its own case in chief.
In a highly contentious dispute between a condominium unit owner and the governing condominium association, one Andrew M. Schwartz, P.A. client recently prevailed at trial on such a motion. At the close of the condominium association’s case in chief, a motion was made (and granted) due to the failure of the association to introduce evidence at trial of one of the necessary elements of its presented claim. While this specific case turned on a very technical issue (i.e. a failure on the part of the association to admit evidence of the publication of a specific statement which it claimed the unit owner had made to a third party), this type of motion ultimately rests upon a fundamental concept of the American legal system. This concept is that a prosecuting party (again, be it a criminal or civil case) bears the burden of proving the claim presented to the Court, and the defending party is presumed innocent (or in the civil context free from any wrongdoing) until sufficient proof is otherwise presented by the prosecuting party.
As it was so succinctly stated by the United States Supreme Court in Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478 (1978), “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.” Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453, 15 S.Ct. 394, 403, 39 L.Ed. 481 (1895).”
In the civil context, it is widely held by the courts of this State that: “As a general rule, the burden of proof is on the party asserting the affirmative of an issue. Espinoza v. Dep’t of Bus. & Prof’l Regulation, 739 So.2d 1250, 1251 (Fla. 3d DCA 1999).”
In the Florida Supreme Court case of Tillman v. Baskin, 260 So.2d 509 (Fla. 1972), the Court addressed what a trial Court is bound to do where a prosecuting party’s presentation of its case is challenged, purely on the admitted evidence, by the defending party:
“The Supreme Court of Alaska also has rejected the federal interpretation, stating: ‘Where plaintiff’s proof has failed in some aspect the motion should, of course, be granted. Where plaintiff’s proof is overwhelming, application of the rule is made easy and the motion should be denied. But where plaintiff has presented a prima facie case based on unimpeached evidence we are of the opinion that the trial judge should not grant the motion even though he is the trier of the facts and may not himself feel at that point in the trial that the plaintiff has sustained his burden of proof. We believe that in the latter situation the trial judge should follow the alternative offered by the rule wherein it is provided that he may decline to render any judgment until the close of all the evidence’, and deny the motion. If, after denial of the motion, the defendant declines to present any evidence, the judge must, of course, then exercise his own judgment in applying the law to the facts presented and rule on the motion and decide the case.’ Rogge v. Weaver, Alaska 1962, 368 P.2d 810, 813. Accord, Arbenz v. Bebout, Wyo. 1968 444 P.2d 317. We agree. There is nothing in Rule 1.420(b) making mandatory a weighing of the facts before the end of all the testimony. Fairness and justice demand that this not be done where the plaintiff has presented a prima facie case in his favor. We prefer the rule enunciated by the Supreme Court of Alaska to that followed by the federal courts. It is inconceivable that a trial judge can fairly find for a defendant after hearing nothing more than testimony from a plaintiff establishing a prima facie case in that plaintiff’s favor. When a prima facie case is made by plaintiff, fairness would appear to require that the trial judge weigh it in the light of the strength or weakness of the defendant’s defense evidence, if any, as in the case of a jury trial. We hold that a trial judge cannot weigh evidence when ruling on a defendant’s Rule 1.420(b) F.R.C.P. motion for involuntary dismissal following the presentation of a prima facie case by a plaintiff.”) (emphasis added).”
Although not much has changed since Tillman v. Baskin, prosecuting parties are still routinely defeated at the close of their case due to the insufficient proffer of evidence. This recent ruling in favor of our client highlights the importance of pre-trial preparation. In any litigation matter, it is incumbent upon a prosecuting or defending party to determine whether admissible evidence supporting each element of the claim or claims at issue actually exists, and if so, how it can be presented to the Court at trial. This is something we address with our clients at the outset of each matter we handle, to ensure that a small error in pre-trial preparation does not lead to an adverse result which could have otherwise been avoided.