Even injury cases that seem like “slam dunks,” or “easy” cases, can have complex issues, that could prevent someone catastrophically injured from recovering at trial. No case should be seen as easy, even when facts seem to look like they go in a victim’s favor. A recent case demonstrates how even when on the surface a case seems like a winner, what happens at trial can turn things around in a hurry.
The Wrongful Death Case
The case arose when the estate of the victim, who died, sued a driver in a rear-end accident. The defendant rear-ended the victim, ejecting her from her car, and killing her. It was later learned that the defendant was an off-duty police officer who had fled the scene after the accident, lied about what happened to his car, and at the time of trial, was actually in jail for charges related to the accident.
How could it be that the estate recovered almost nothing? It had to do with evidentiary issues, including the seat belt defense.
Evidence of the Defendant’s Behavior
The first question concerned the off-duty officer’s behavior after the accident, including fleeing the scene. The victim’s estate wanted the jury to hear that information. The defendant objected, believing that it was just meant to anger the jury, and make the victim look like a bad person, and thus was not admissible.
Generally, even evidence that may be relevant to an issue can be excluded, if it is highly inflammatory or unfairly prejudicial to a party. It is up to a judge to determine whether the prejudicial effects outweigh any beneficial evidentiary value information presented to a jury may have.
The trial court here agreed with the defendant that the evidence was highly prejudicial and kept the information from the ears of the jury.
On appeal, the court noted that the trial court had wide discretion in determining whether evidence is too inflammatory or prejudicial, and here, it was bound to follow the trial court’s decision to exclude the evidence.
The Seat Belt Defense Issue
The seatbelt issue was more complex. The defendant argued that the victim died largely because of her failure to wear a seatbelt, and in fact, there was testimony that one wasn’t used. However, there was also testimony that the seatbelt in the car was not operable.
The victim asked the court to omit the seatbelt evidence, arguing that before the defense could be asserted, it had to be shown that the seatbelt was working in the first place. Here, there was plenty of evidence that it was not. But the court denied the motion, and allowed the jury to decide.
In the end, the jury determined the victim was 70% responsible for her own injuries, thus reducing her estate’s recovery by that amount.
The appellate court noted that although a jury can consider whether there was an operational seatbelt in a vehicle, as it did here, there was nothing that said that a defendant had to prove that a seatbelt was operational before a jury considers the issue. In other words, a broken seat belt can be considered by a jury. But finding there was a working one was not a prerequisite to the issue being submitted to a jury to decide.
The appellate court thus was obligated to abide by the jury’s determination.
Don’t ever assume a case is easy, or that a wrongful death case is one that just anybody can handle. There are many issues that may not be apparent on the surface, that you need good attorneys to recognize and deal with. Talk to the Miami personal injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today for a free consultation about your injury or wrongful death case.