Wednesday, April 25, 2012

When Saying You Were Wrong Makes Sense

             Stipulating to liability in a motor vehicle accident case has its strategic advantages.  Generally, attorneys employ this tactic to keep out evidence of a defendant’s prior moving violations, behavior and actions after the accident and intoxication of the defendant.  The rationale behind this strategy is that by stipulating to liability, evidence regarding these types of matters becomes irrelevant and therefore inadmissible.  If liability is admitted, the only thing left for the jury to decide is the issue of damages (e.g. money). 

          The Court of Special Appeals recently decided a case involving a stipulation of liability in Hendrix v.Burns, et ux.  In Hendrix, the two Defendants admitted liability on the negligence claims asserted against them (negligence against Mr. Burns and negligent entrustment against Mrs. Burns).  The trial court granted Defendants’ motions in limine and precluded Plaintiff from introducing evidence that at the time of the accident Mr. Burns was drunk, had been involved in a road rage incident with another driver, was pursuing that driver when he ran a red light, attempted to flee the scene after the accident and had prior DUI convictions.  The trial court also precluded Plaintiff from introducing evidence that Mrs. Burns knew of these past incidents involving her husband. The jury returned a verdict of $85,000.00 and Plaintiff appealed.  One of the primary issues on appeal was whether or not the trial court erred in granting Defendants’ motions in limine and precluding Plaintiff from introducing certain evidence. 

          One of the arguments advanced by Plaintiff’s counsel was that because of Plaintiff’s 26 years of experience as a 911 operator, she had “a very strong fear” of being hit by a drunk driver and that she suffered great emotional distress, when after the accident, she learned Mr. Burns was drunk and had attempted to flee the scene.  Plaintiff argued that this evidence was relevant evidence in support of her claim for emotional distress. 

             The Court held that the “threshold issue is one of relevancy” and cited to Maryland Rule 5-401 when it defined evidence as relevant if it has “any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.”  The Court ruled that the fact that Mr. Burns was drunk and in a road rage incident at the time of the accident and attempted to flee the scene after the accident, “was not of consequence to the issue of damages.”

            The decision to stipulate to liability must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  When there are factors involving the defendant’s behavior pre or post-accident that would harm the defense of the case, stipulating to liability may be the best way to keep that type of damaging evidence from reaching the jury.

Article contributed by Andy Nichols

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