New Trial Ordered for Failure to Give Proposed Jury Charge

In Bailey v. Sawyer, No. 2050707 (Ala. Civ. App. Sep. 14),  the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals ordered a new trial based on the trial court’s refusal to give the the plaintiffs’ proposed jury charge concerning undue influence on the testator. 

In Bailey, the plaintiffs contested their grandmother’s will, alleging that their uncle had unduly influenced their grandmother to change her will in his favor.  Following the jury’s verdict in favor of the uncle, the plaintiffs moved for a new trial, arguing that the trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury that a radical change from the bequests of previous wills raises the inference that a subsequent will was the product of influence. The court agreed, stating that in a jury case, a party is entitled to have its case tried to a jury that is given the appropriate standard by which to reach its decision, and a wrongful refusal of a requested jury charge constitutes a ground for a new trial.  Pursuant to Rule 45 of the Alabama Rules of Appellate Procedure, however, refusal of a special charge may only result in a new trial where "it should appear that the error complained of has probably injuriously affected substantial rights of the parties." 

The court found that that standard was met.  The instruction the plaintiffs sought regarding the inference of undue influence was a correct statement of the law.  The remaining jury instructions that were given at trial did not address the inference of undue influence resulting from a radical deviation from the bequests of previous wills. Because the jury might have reached a different conclusion if it had been properly instructed, the failure to give the charge prejudiced the plaintiffs and a new trial was warranted.