Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff and Defendant employees were injured when Plaintiff’s truck rear ended Defendant’s truck. Plaintiff trucking company sued Defendant trucking company for damage to the truck and personal injuries arising from the collision of the two trucks. At trial, Defendant did not object when the judge charged the jury that Defendant had the burden to prove contributory negligence but argues on appeal from a verdict for Plaintiff that such instruction should not have been given.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A party waives its objection to an erroneous instruction to the jury unless such party makes a timely objection as required by Rule 51 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
A judge is not bound to adopt the categorical language which counsel choose to put into his mouth.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Under Rule 51, must the defendant have presented its objection to an erroneous jury instruction at the time the instruction is given in order to preserve its right to appeal?
Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed. Under Rule 51 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the defendant must request a charge on the subject or to object to the charge given. The defendant only took exception during colloquy with the judge at the close of plaintiff’s case, which is not in compliance with the language of Rule 51. It does not matter that the instruction seems to be erroneous. The purpose of an objection is to permit the trial judge to evaluate the objection in light of the circumstances existing at the time of the objection. Had Defendants presented an objection at the appropriate time, the trial judge probably would have changed the instruction. The objection to the instruction made several days before the instruction was presented to the jury does not meet the literal requirement of Rule 51.
Discussion. This is not a situation addressing the explicitness of the objection. Nor does this case discuss the rare instances where an appeals court will overturn a trial court even though no objection was made.