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Trial by Ambush and the Motion In Limine

The standard trial order entered by most trial judges in Florida normally states that forty- five (45) days before trial, the parties shall furnish opposing counsel with a written list containing the names and addresses of all witnesses, (impeachment, rebuttal or otherwise) intended to be called at trial. Generally, only those witnesses listed shall be permitted to testify at trial.

Despite the trial court's order and your diligence in properly requesting the names of all witnesses in each deposition as well as in each interrogatory question, an opposing counsel may inform you during trial that he has just "found" a witness in your case that he intends to call to testify against you. In many instances, opposing counsel's acts amount to "trial by ambush."

Despite the trial court's order, most judges will not allow any witness not previously disclosed or ever mentioned to even get near the courtroom, let along testify. Nevertheless, there are certain circumstances when a trial judge may be convinced that a witness should be allowed to testify even though they have not been listed prior to the trial. A trial judge may properly allow such witness to testify during the trial if the party presenting the previously undisclosed witness diligently attempted to find said witness and was unsuccessful due to the witness' unavailability and if the attorney can show that the opposing side is not prejudiced, that the trial will not be disrupted, and the orderly and efficient trial of the case may continue. Binger v. King Pest Control, 401 So.2d 1310 (Fla. 1981).

In Binger, the Supreme Court of Florida held that a trial court may exclude the testimony of a witness whose name has not been disclosed in accordance with the trial court's pre-trial order requiring disclosure of all witnesses when the opposing party is prejudiced, the opposing party does not have independent knowledge of the existence of the undisclosed witness, testimony by the undisclosed witness may disrupt the orderly and efficient trial of the case, and no diligence has been shown in attempting to find the witness prior to the actual trial of the case. Binger, 401 So.2d at 1314.

Prejudice should be demonstrated before the trial court exercises its discretion to exclude the testimony of a witness whose name has not been disclosed in accordance with a pre-trial order. Binger, 401 So.2d at 1313; Hilton, Vincent, Pipkin, et al. v. Robert T. Hamer, et al., 501 So.2d 1365 (Fla. 4th DCA 1987); William Sayad v. James Alley, 508 So.2d 485 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987). (All cases affirms the trial court's refusal to allow undisclosed witnesses to testify.)

It no longer matters that the undisclosed witnesses are being used simply for impeachment or rebuttal purposes at trial. After the Binger decision, the Florida Supreme Court specifically required that "all witnesses names should be exchanged before trial including rebuttal and impeachment witnesses when the pre-trial order so requires." 401 So.2d at 1314.

Nevertheless, the trial court is afforded broad discretion in deciding whether an undisclosed witness should be allowed to testify. William Sayad v. James Alley, 508 So.2d 485 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987); Binger, 401 So.2d at 1313. The trial court will not be reversed unless the judge abused his or her discretion. The determination as to whether to allow an undisclosed witness to testify during trial largely will be decided if the party opposing the undisclosed witness can show that it will be prejudiced. Binger, 401 So.2d at 1314. Green v. Shoop, 249 So.2d 85 (Fla. 3d DCA 1970); See also, Fuller v. Rinebolt, 382 So.2d 1239 (Fla. 4th DCA 1980).

If you apply the above guidelines and rules to your case, you should succeed in convincing the court that it should not allow opposing side to try its case by ambush. Chances are you will succeed in preventing the undisclosed witness from testifying in any capacity unless it can be shown that the prejudice can be cured and the undisclosed witness will not substantially endanger the fairness of the proceeding, or disrupt the orderly and efficient trial of the case. Binger, 401 So.2d at 1314.

If you are successful in preventing the undisclosed witness from testifying at trial, you should also move in limine to prohibit any testimony, evidence or other mention of the undisclosed witness during the trial by the opposing counsel. This alone may taint the jury's perception of your case.

When confronted with an opposing counsel's surprise tactic during trial, remember to properly establish your client's prejudice if the surprise maneuver is allowed to proceed during trial. Next, convince the court that the prejudice can not be cured and the matter will affect the fairness of the trial, as well as the orderly and efficient process of the case.

Motion In Limine

Motions in limine can be done at the very last minute, even while the jury is waiting in the hall to come in. BE FOREWARNED. These motions have the ability to negate your case entirely and knock the legs right out from under you. The courts give judges "broad discretion" in ruling on these motions. Read about motions in limine


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