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Steven J. Klearman
Steven J. Klearman
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Update on Nevada Allstate Attorney Misconduct Case

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In the ongoing squabble over Allstate defense attorney Phil Emerson’s repeated misconduct in arguing cases at trial, the Nevada Supreme Court rendered its latest decision on January 17, 2008.

In its introduction to Lioce v. Cohen, 124 Nev. Adv. Op. No. 1, the Court stated:

On December 28, 2006, this court issued an opinion in these consolidated appeals.[2] The defendants in each of the four underlying personal injury cases were represented by the same attorney, who gave substantially the same closing argument on behalf of his clients at each trial. Asserting that defense counsel’s closing arguments constituted misconduct, the plaintiffs sought new trials, with varying success.

In that opinion, we revised the standards under which district courts are to evaluate requests for new trials based on attorney misconduct. Next, we reversed the denial of the motions for new trials in Lioce v. Cohen and Lang v. Knippenberg, and affirmed the grant of new trials in Castro v. Cabrera and Seasholtz v. Wheeler. Additionally, we determined that the defendants’ attorney’s closing arguments in Castro and Seasholtz amounted to misconduct, and we remanded those cases with instructions to the district courts to calculate and impose monetary sanctions on defense counsel and his clients.[3] Finally, we referred defense counsel to the State Bar of Nevada for disciplinary proceedings. This petition for rehearing followed. Having considered the petition, answers, amici curiae briefs, and the replies, we conclude that en banc rehearing is warranted in part under NRAP 40(c). We therefore grant the petition in part, vacate our prior opinion in this matter, and issue this opinion in its place. On rehearing, we reach substantially the same conclusion as in our prior opinion, but we decline to impose monetary sanctions on defense counsel and his clients.

Because defense counsel’s closing arguments encouraged the jurors to look beyond the law and the relevant facts in deciding the cases before them, we agree that they amounted to misconduct. In determining whether the district courts properly decided that this misconduct warranted new trials or not, we take the opportunity to revise our attorney misconduct jurisprudence. New trial requests based on attorney misconduct must be evaluated differently depending upon whether counsel objected to the misconduct during trial. When a party successfully objects to the misconduct, the district court may grant a subsequent motion for a new trial if the moving party demonstrates that the misconduct’s harmful effect could not be removed through any sustained objection and admonishment. With respect to unobjected-to misconduct, we conclude that the district court may grant a motion for a new trial only if the misconduct amounted to plain error, so that absent the misconduct, the verdict would have been different. When ruling on a motion for a new trial based on attorney misconduct, district courts must make express factual findings, applying the above standards.

In these consolidated appeals, we conclude that in Castro and Seasholtz, the district courts did not abuse their discretion by granting the plaintiffs’ motions for a new trial, and therefore, we affirm the district courts’ orders in those matters. In Lang and Lioce, however, we are unable to ascertain from the record whether the district courts abused their discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ motions for a new trial. Accordingly, we vacate those orders and remand those two matters for a new decision on the new trial motions, based on the standards announced today. In addition, we refer defense counsel to the State Bar of Nevada.