In Teachable Moment of Trial, CVN spotlights key courtroom moments and trial-winning techniques from the country's best attorneys. Today, the spotlight focuses on a powerful opening statement damages story.
The groundwork for the most effective damages stories is set during a trial’s opening statement. And in openings of a 2022 trial over the crash that ultimately killed a 19-year-old college student, Christian Morris vividly detailed the magnitude of the young woman’s loss, setting up a $7.24 million verdict that far exceeded defense settlement offers.
Mikayla Cifuni, a student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, was fatally injured in a 2017 rear-end collision with a van. With summary judgment entered against the van's driver, trial proceeded on the issue of damages, whether the driver was acting as an employee of a flooring company at the time of the wreck, and whether the van had been negligently entrusted to the driver.
Scope-of-employment and negligent entrustment claims can be complex issues for jurors to grasp, requiring significant time to outline in openings. But Morris, then of Nettles | Morris and now of Morris Trial Attorneys, also masterfully wove details of the crash's catastrophic impact into her opening statement, ensuring jurors formed a powerful emotional connection with Cifuni and her family from the trial's earliest moments.
With the aid of family photos, Morris introduced jurors to Cifuni and her family with intimate anecdotes from throughout Cifuni's life.
“She was a beautiful child. She was quiet but she would sit back and listen, unlike her older sister, Briana, who will tell you that she really found Mikayla to be annoying when she was little,” Morris said, chuckling at the thought. “Just very separate from her, but as they got older they got closer,” she added, as she showed a photo of the two sisters as young girls, arms around one another.
“And you’ll see, Briana wears a badge of her loss, a tattoo of Mikayla’s face on her arm.”
Morris told jurors of the family’s struggle during those 13 grueling days between the accident and Cifuni’s death, but explained that it’s all the days beyond that final moment that continue to weigh on them. “They keep her room just like it was: clothes still hang in the closet, her makeup still on the counter, her drawing book— she loved to draw and write. She had a wish list for everything, a bucket list for life. It all stays there untouched.”
Morris' conversational delivery and the little details about Cifuni that she interspersed throughout these moments, as if she was a long-time family friend recounting personal, emotional anecdotes, adds to the gravity of the loss she described. And after Morris wrapped up Cifuni’s life before the crash — her college studies, her love of cosplay — she turned to the young woman's life afterward:
“It’s gone.” She said simply.
Jurors awarded $7.24 million in the case, beyond finding defendants liable on both the negligent entrustment and scope-of-employment claims. The award exceeded an initial $50,000 settlement offer by the defense that was later doubled to a $100,000 total offer, according to a defense attorney.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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