Alexander v. Kramer Bros. Freight Lines, Inc. – Case Brief
Alexander v. Kramer Bros. Freight Lines, Inc., 273 F.2d 373 (2d Cir. 1959).
Facts: Alexander (P) sustained serious personal injuries in a collision with a truck owned by Kramer Brothers Freight Lines (D) and sued for negligence. Kramer Brothers denied Alexander’s allegations of negligence and alleged contributory negligence as a defense.
At trial each driver presented a very different account of the location and events surrounding the accident. Alexander claimed that Kramer Brothers’ truck had cut him off suddenly. The driver of Kramer Brothers’ truck claimed that Alexander had been following too closely and hit him from behind.
At trial the judge incorrectly instructed the jury that the defense had the burden of proof to show contributory negligence by the plaintiff. The correct instruction was that the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff to show that he was not contributorily negligent.
The jury returned a verdict for Alexander. On appeal, Kramer Brothers asserted that giving the incorrect instructions to the jury on contributory negligence was grounds for reversible error. Kramer Brothers contended that, while it did not object to the jury instructions immediately before the jury retired for deliberations, it had objected to the instructions several days earlier.
Issue: Can a party challenge a jury instruction on appeal if that party did not make a timely objection to that instruction at trial?
Holding and Rule: No. FRCP 51 requires that objections to a jury charge must be made in a timely manner before a party may raise such objections on appeal. Except in rare circumstances, a party waives the right to appeal a charge to the jury in failing to enter a timely objection to that charge at trial.
The charge must be objected to prior to the jury retiring for deliberations. The purpose of a timely objection is to permit the trial judge to evaluate the objection and correct his charge if further thought persuades him that there is an error. A timely objection must be made before the jury retires and not several days before the ruling is required. Kramer Brothers’ claim that it raised the objection several days before the charge was given to the jury will not suffice under Rule 51.
The instant case is not one of an exceptional character in which an appellate court will sometimes correct an error in the charge in the absence of objection or exception. A court may make an exception to Rule 51 when the judge at trial is egregiously wrong and the error is fundamental and affects the outcome of the case.