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Car Accident Plaintiff Wins Appeal After Motive For Lawsuit Improperly Questioned

The myth of the so-called “professional plaintiff” has been pushed by certain interest groups intent on tort reform legislation, which ultimately harms those who most need relief. 

It’s not that auto insurance fraud is an impossibility or never-event, but it’s far less common than defense attorneys and some others would have you believe. Unfortunately, sometimes this misconception has a real impact on actual victims.

Recently, the Hawaii Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s judgment in favor of a car accident defendant whose attorneys repeatedly raised the question of a plaintiff’s “motive” for filing the claim in the first place, repeatedly insinuating – despite a lack of conviction or even formal accusation – that plaintiff had committed workers’ compensation insurance fraud. The state high court ruled the “plaintiff’s motives for bringing suit were irrelevant to the merits of her claim and her credibility as a witness.” At minimum, the trial court in the case should have granted the plaintiff’s requested jury instruction underscoring the fact that her motivation for filing the lawsuit was barred from jurors’ consideration. What matters, ultimately, is the merits of the claim.

An experienced injury lawyer who routinely handles car accident cases understands the damage these kinds of insinuations can have on a jury, and also how to effectively challenge them. 

In this case, defendant rear-ended a vehicle ahead of him, which in turn propelled it into another, wherein plaintiff was a passenger. At the time of the collision, plaintiff, a nursing assistant, was helping the driver transport an elderly patient to the doctor for a scheduled visit. Plaintiff suffered injuries that required two subsequent surgeries and physical therapy. After receiving workers’ compensation benefits, she pursued a personal injury claim. There is nothing outside the norm in doing this and unlike workers’ compensation claims, successful personal injury lawsuits cover more than solely medical bills and a portion of lost wages.

No one disagreed there was a crash or that defendant had been the rear-most driver, creating a rebuttable presumption he was liable for resulting injuries.

However, defendant would later insist there was an unrestrained child in the backseat of the vehicle in which plaintiff was riding, and that the driver and plaintiff hastened to install a car seat from the trunk before police arrived. This point – made continuously throughout trial – was relevant, defendant argued, for three reasons:

  • It showed where plaintiff was seated in the vehicle, which was relevant to disputing the extent of her injuries as alleged – and even whether she’d been in the vehicle at all (it was defendant’s contention she was not in the vehicle);
  • It contrasted with plaintiff’s assertion that she was on-the-job (which was the basis of a workers’ compensation claim she’d made);
  • It damaged her credibility as a witness.

Plaintiff denied there was every a child in the vehicle, let alone one that was unrestrained, and that the only other passenger in the car was her elderly patient. The responding officer made no mention of a child or car seat in plaintiff’s car.

When the case neared the trial phase, plaintiff sought to suppress any evidence or statements pertaining to this phantom child’s presence, arguing it was only going to waste time and confuse the jury and it wasn’t relevant. Further, it could unfairly prejudice her because jurors were likely to have a strong adverse reaction to allegations plaintiff placed a child at-risk.

The circuit court denied plaintiff’s motion, indicating it would evaluate relevance at trial in light of its understanding that credibility of all witnesses is something that is always at issue.

At trial, allegations of this unrestrained child and numerous insinuations of workers’ compensation fraud were made. The judge rejected plaintiff’s request for a special jury instruction notifying jurors that the merits of the case – not her motive – were the issue they were responsible for deciding. In closing argument, defense attorney even went so far as to posit that a verdict favoring plaintiff would be shameful, as it would be complicit in plaintiff’s fraud. Jurors decided the case in favor of defendant, finding he was not at-fault for her injuries.

The appeals court reversed. The requested jury instruction was correct as a matter of law and should have been submitted. Furthermore, the appeals court ruled testimony relating to the child in the vehicle would only be admissible for purposes of indicating plaintiff’s location and direction of impact on plaintiff’s body. Still, the trial court abused discretion by allowing it because its probative value was substantially outweighed by its potential to confuse jurors and result in unfair prejudice. The lower court vacated the previous verdict and ordered either a new trial or a judgment in favor of plaintiff as a matter of law.

The state supreme court affirmed, noting it is well-established in courts throughout the country – since the 1882 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Davis v. Flagg – that a plaintiff’s motives in filing a case are irrelevant. What matters are its merits.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Medeiros v. Choy, April 26, 2018, Hawaii Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Seventh Circuit Caps Auto Insurer Exposure on Excess Verdict Despite Improper Refusal to Defend, April 28, 2018, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Attorney Blog

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