Settling Defendant Charge Need Not Always Be Given – Hernandez v. Chekenian, No. L-11038 14, 2016 WL 6024008, (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. July 15, 2016)

By Michael Zerres

In a recently published decision, a Trial Court addressed whether it is appropriate to give a settling defendant charge to a jury when the party in question settled prior to trial and was present during trial.

The matter involved a three car motor vehicle accident, in which all cars were one behind the other, in the same lane. Plaintiff was the passenger of the second (middle) car. Defendant driver of the second (middle) car settled for his policy limits prior to trial. Counsel for defendant requested that the court give the jury the settling co-defendant charge(s) regarding “Settling Defendants” and “Instructions to Jury In Cases In Which One Or More Defendants Have Settled With The Plaintiff.” Plaintiff opposed this request, the Court agreed, and no such instruction was given.

The Court stated that a jury is entitled to know what happened to a defendant that started out in the case at trial, in the presence of a jury, and then is suddenly absent. This logic does not apply, however, when a jury never sees a particular defendant because they settled their dispute prior to trial. The Court explained that the fact a torfeasor settled, for whatever reason, is completely irrelevant and obviously, highly prejudicial to a plaintiff. The Court stated that the settling co-defendants charge seems to have become conflated with issues concerning comparative negligence. However, the Court found that nothing about the comparative negligence analysis suggests that the jury should be told that the settling party paid money to the plaintiff. Thus, the Court, similarly, found that it made no sense to inform the jury in a case where a party they have never seen, settled..

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