Monday, March 4, 2013

Admitting Liability to Exclude Evidence

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed its holding in Hendrix last week in a reported opinion in Alban et ux., v. Fiels.  This case was tried, brief and argued by RSRM partner, Andy Nichols.  

The underlying accident occurred on June 11, 2009.  Defendant failed to stay in his lane and as a result, struck the Plaintiffs' vehicle.  Mr. Fiels did not stop immediately after the accident and continued driving.  He later drove back through the accident scene and pulled into a shopping plaza approximately a mile from the accident scene.  

In their Complaint, Plaintiffs sought compensatory damages for negligence as well as "intentional acts of outrage." Defendant filed a motion to dismiss or for partial summary judgment as to Plaintiffs' cause of action for "intentional acts of outrage."  The Circuit Court for Baltimore County granted Defendant's Motion.  Once the Motion was granted, Defendant stipulated as to his negligence and moved to exclude any evidence regarding his alleged conduct after the accident.  Mr. Nichols argued that the evidence was irrelevant in light of the stipulation at to Defendant's negligence, and that in the alternative, assuming the evidence was relevant, its probative value was outweighed by its prejudicial impact.  

After arguments by both attorneys, during which time Plaintiffs' counsel proffered that witnesses at the scene would testify that the Defendant was laughing as he drove back through the accident scene, the Court ruled that evidence of the Defendant's alleged post-accident conduct was irrelevant and inadmissible.  Plaintiffs' counsel also proffered that the witnesses informed Mrs. Alban of this fact, while she was trapped in her vehicle.  

The primary injury Mrs. Alban alleged she suffered was post-traumatic stress disorder.  Her contention was that the excluded evidence was relevant to her claim of mental and emotional injuries.  The Court of Special Appeals very recently dealt with a factually similar case in Hendrix, wherein the Court ruled such evidence was irrelevant.  Plaintiffs attempted to distinguish Hendrix by pointing out that Mrs. Alban was still trapped in the vehicle at the time she was told of Defendant's alleged conduct.  The Court of Special Appeals stated that this "is a factual distinction without a legal difference" and affirmed the Circuit Court's rulings. 

While stipulating liability is not always appropriate, the option should be reviewed as a strategic maneuver when there is a need to prevent potentially damaging evidence from reaching the jury.  

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