In McDowell v. Hartzog, Georgia Supreme Court Case No. S12G0369 (decided January 7, 2013), the Georgia Supreme Court clarified the means by which an attorney preserves an objection to jury instructions in a civil case.
O.C.G.A. § 5-5-24(a) requires that a party preserve an objection to a jury instruction by making a specific objection before the jury returns a verdict. That objection must state distinctly the grounds for the objection. Under existing case law, an objection made during the charge conference is insufficient to preserve a claim of error. Attorneys must state their objections after the trial judge instructs the jury.
In McDowell, the plaintiffs’ attorney objected to a jury instruction during the charge conference, stating specific grounds. However, after the trial judge instructed the jury, the plaintiffs’ counsel only pointed out to the trial judge his earlier objections without restating the specific grounds for the objections. The Georgia Court of Appeals had held that such an objection was insufficient. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed. The Georgia Supreme Court held that because the attorney had stated specific ground for the objection during the charge conference, he adequately preserved the issue for appeal by referencing that earlier objection after the trial judge instructed the jury. The Georgia Supreme Court concluded that no purpose was served by requiring counsel to restate fully the same grounds for objecting.
It is worth noting that it is still the law in Georgia that merely stating an objection during the charge conference is not sufficient to preserve for appeal an objection to a jury instruction. After the trial court instructs the jury, counsel must still do something to restate the objection, if only to refer to an earlier detailed objection made during the charge conference.