Got ethics questionWe’ve posted here before about interesting sanctions that courts have ordered for lawyer misconduct.  Here’s another one, in a case very recently tried to a jury verdict in the Eastern District of Louisiana.

In Kuran David v. Signal Int’l, LLC, plaintiffs were Indian guest workers who alleged that they were falsely promised green cards in a labor trafficking scheme.

During closing arguments to the jury, the lawyer for one of the defendants referred to one of the plaintiffs’ “suicide gesture,” and a medical record that related to it.  But earlier court rulings had made testimony about the plaintiff’s medical record off-limits.

The jury found the lawyer’s client liable; it was ordered to pay $12.25 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Two days after the closing arguments, at the court-ordered show-cause hearing, the lawyer acknowledged that the comment was “inappropriate,” but sought to excuse the mis-step by referring to it as a “mistake,” occasioned by “21 long days [of trial].”

The court was not impressed, ruling that “this lengthy trial taxed all parties, but fatigue is no excuse.”

The sanction:  the lawyer must participate, at the lawyer’s own expense, in the first available session of the state bar association-sponsored “Ethics School.”  (According to its web site, the Ethics School is worth four CLE credits, and involves an exam, administered at the end of the course.  It costs $395.)

The lawyer seems to have gotten off fairly easy, considering that Rule 3.4(e) of the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct (like its Model Rules counterpart) bars allusions at trial to any “matter that … will not be supported by admissible evidence.”  The judge found the lawyer’s slip-up showed “reckless disregard” of the order barring the medical record.  If the reference to the excluded evidence had been seen as an intentional gambit made to “backdoor inadmissible evidence” — as opposed to being merely “reckless” — then it is possible that the sanction would have been harsher, including a referral to disciplinary authorities.

Trial can be an exhausting marathon, but you must stay on the right side of the ethics rules during your closing argument, and at all other times — otherwise you may subject yourself to a court’s power to fashion creative sanctions for a lapse.