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Trial Court Improperly Admitted Evidence of Defendant’s Other Accidents to Prove He Was Negligent in Causing Auto Accident

By on January 8, 2016 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Angela Gonzalez-Caceres was a rear passenger in a 2008 Toyota, seated directly behind the driver defendant Corrales. Plaintiff, who was asleep, was awakened by the impact from a collision involving the Toyota and a tractor-trailer driven by defendant Murray. She was injured and sued both Murray and Corrales for negligently operating their motor vehicles in Gonzalez-Caceres v. Murray, 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2826 (App. Div. Dec. 8, 2015). The issue on appeal is whether the trial court improperly admitted into evidence information regarding Corrales’ other accidents.

The accident happened when Corrales was struck in the rear by Murray’s tractor trailer. Murray, however, claimed that Corrales cut him off and change lanes in front of him.

Just prior to trial, plaintiff settled her claim with Corrales and proceeded to try her case solely against Murray. The jury returned a no cause for action as to Murray and the plaintiff appealed. She argued that the trial court judge erred in permitting the introduction of evidence regarding other motor vehicle accidents in which Corrales had been involved to establish that Corrales was not a good driver and, as a result of this error, she was entitled to a new trial.

The Appellate Division noted that the admissibility of evidence is governed by several evidence rules. First, Rule 402 applied, which states that “Except as otherwise provided by these rules or by law, all relevant evidence is admissible.” Evidence is considered “relevant” if it has “a tendency in reason to prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of the action.” Rule 401. Finally, pursuant to Rule 403, relevant evidence may be excluded “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of (a) undue prejudice, confusion of issues, or misleading the jury or (b) undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”

Here, the Appellate Division found that the defendant Murray had not established a logical relationship between Corrales’ other accidents and the accident involving the plaintiff. The trial court mistakenly characterized the prior accidents as similar in nature. After reviewing the circumstances of the prior accidents, the appeals court stated that none of them occurred in the same manner as the accident in this case. Hence, this evidence was not relevant to prove or disprove that Corrales’ actions caused the accident.

Further, the Appellate Division examined the application of Rule 404, which essentially permits character evidence including a trait of care or skill or lack thereof to show that the person acted in conformity therewith on a particular occasion. Evidence of other wrongs or bad acts is prohibited unless admitted for other purposes.

In this case, the defendant Murray presented evidence of Corrales’ other accidents to show he was a bad driver and, implicitly, was responsible for the accident at issue. The Appellate Division noted that general evidence of careless driving is inadmissible to show how someone drove on a particular occasion.

Habit evidence may be admissible if the party offering this evidence can show that the conduct of the other party is so uniform that it amounts to a nearly automatic response to a specified situation. Thus, the only habit evidence arguably that could have been relevant to this case was “whether Corrales had a specific, routine practice of carelessly cutting in front of tractor-trailer trucks.” In examining the evidence presented, the Appellate Division found that the defendant was unable to present proofs that this practice was Corrales’ habitual conduct.

The admission of this evidence was harmful to the plaintiff because the defense largely depended on whose version of events to believe and whether Corrales did cut off Murray. Accordingly, the Appellate Division determined that this evidence was improperly admitted, was likely prejudicial to the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff was entitled to a new trial.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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