What would Judge Jim Jones do?
He granted a new trial, when a defense lawyer in a civil rights case veered off track by asking the plaintiff if he had thought about what Jesus would do before filing a lawsuit against the defendant officer.
Plaintiff Trey Adkins sued police investigator Marcus McClanahan for seizing a bulldozer Adkins was using at a local church. Adkins was a candidate for local political office and reports began to circulate that he had been arrested, damaging Adkins’ electoral prospects, he said. Adkins sued McClanahan under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and a jury in Abingdon federal court found the officer violated Adkins’ constitutional rights, but awarded him only $1 in damages.
The jury likely had been misled, Jones said, to believe McClanahan would be personally liable to pay any money judgment.
Jones based his decision on a lengthy cross-examination of Adkins by defense counsel, Assistant Attorney General John Gilbody, which Jones quoted in his Sept. 16 opinion. Gilbody asked Adkins if he knew McClanahan had a family. “That’s correct,” Adkins responded.
“And earlier in your testimony you indicated you asked yourself quite often what would Jesus do. Do you remember that testimony?” Gilbody asked. “I do,” Adkins said.
“Did you ask that question before you sued him for $500,000?” queried Gilbody. “Huh?” said Adkins. “No more questions,” Gilbody said. The court told the witness he could answer the question. Abingdon lawyer Michael Bragg, who represented Adkins, said if Gilbody did not want an answer to the question, did he want to withdraw the question?
Gilbody withdrew the question.
During a colloquy outside the jury’s hearing, Gilbody said he was not trying to suggest the officer would have to pay out of his own pocket, but pointing to the fact that Adkins had “invoked his faith on numerous occasions,” but his actions “seem to be quite at odds with his profession of his faith …”
Jones asked how filing a lawsuit to “vindicate one’s civil rights would be contrary to some teaching of religion?”
The “very basic tenet of Christianity is forgiveness, so the point would be, most certainly implicates that, that fundamental idea of Christianity,” Gilbody said.
Jones said the question was improper and he instructed the jury not to concern itself with who might actually pay any money damages. The line of questioning was comparable to hints at insurance coverage in a personal injury case, the court suggested.
Jones said he believed the defense lawyer “intended to create the misimpression that the defendant would pay any damages that the jury awarded.”
On a post-trial motion, Jones said a curative jury instruction “can be problematic if it pushes the issue into the forefront of jurors’ minds without correcting any misimpressions.”
Stronger medicine was needed, Jones concluded. He ordered a new trial on damages.