In a case involving a car accident during a test drive, the California Court of Appeals addressed whether alleged cumulative evidentiary errors during trial and attorney misconduct resulted in prejudice to the defendant.
Kenneth Gonsalves, a BMW salesperson, was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Ran Li. Mr. Li was test-driving a vehicle and allegedly drove recklessly, causing the accident in which Gonsalves suffered back injuries. After a jury found Li negligent and Gonsalves not comparatively negligent, Gonsalves was awarded more than $1.2 million in damages.
On appeal, Mr. Li argues the trial court committed evidentiary errors and did not adequately look into juror misconduct. He also alleges Mr. Gonsalves’ trial counsel committed misconduct.
The undisputed facts demonstrate that Mr. Gonsalves assisted Mr. Li and his father at a dealership in Concord. During the test drive of an M3, Mr. Li left the highway to return to the dealership but then pressed a button labeled “M button” and returned to the highway.
Mr. Li then lost control of the car, and the rear wheels hit the guardrail, turning the car to face oncoming traffic. Accident reconstruction experts agreed the car was traveling at about 25 miles an hour when it entered the on-ramp, and then it accelerated.
Both parties testified to different versions of the facts that took place before and during the accident. Mr. Gonsalves testified that Mr. Li drove dangerously on the freeway, accelerating to 120 miles per hour. Mr. Gonsalves’ expert testified that driver error accounted for the accident.
Mr. Li and his father, who accompanied the test drive, stated that Mr. Gonsalves mentioned the M button and said that it released a lot of power in the vehicle. The defense expert had stated that the M button affected the manner of the accident, such that the accident was not caused by excessive speed.
Turning to the evidentiary issues, the court analyzed Mr. Li’s argument that the trial court should not have allowed Mr. Gonsalves’ counsel to examine him about his denials and admitted written responses to discovery. The issue for the court was the admissibility of the denials at trial.
In this case, the appellate court stated that denials to requests for admissions are not admissible evidence at trial. Mr. Li was asked to explain, without consulting with his attorney, why he had formerly taken the position that he could not admit or deny certain requests for admissions. Other states have held that denials of requests for admissions are inadmissible at trial. Here, the court held that denials of requests for admissions are not admissible evidence in a case where litigation conduct is not directly at issue. By permitting the examination of Mr. Li, the trial court erred in admitting those responses into evidence.
Next, the court addressed Mr. Li’s argument that the trial court erred by allowing questioning regarding the legal issue of causation. Counsel for Mr. Gonsalves questioned Mr. Li regarding whether his driving was a substantial factor in causing the accident. During trial, defense counsel for Mr. Li objected to questions about causation and substantial factors.
The appellate court stated that witness testimony, as an opinion, must be rationally based on the witness’ perception and helpful to the understanding of his testimony. An opinion is to be offered only when a witness cannot adequately describe his observations without using opinion wording.
Here, defense counsel repeatedly asked Mr. Li if his driving was a “substantial factor” in causing the accident. The appeals court stated these were improper attempts to force Mr. Li to offer an opinion about the ultimate issue of liability. It would have been appropriate to ask Mr. Li for a description of the accident, or how the car spun out. It was improper to ask about the ultimate issue of liability in the action. Furthermore, it was improper to ask Mr. Li, a layperson, about an issue for which expert testimony had been admitted.
The appeals court also held that it was improper for the trial court to admit evidence of Mr. Li’s previous speeding tickets. The general rule is that in personal injury actions resulting from car accidents, evidence of prior traffic citations is not admissible to show the driver was negligent on the particular occasion. In this particular case, Mr. Li admitted he sped during the test drive, so the evidence of prior tickets did not impeach his testimony.
Regarding Mr. Li’s allegation of attorney misconduct by Mr. Gonsalves’ trial counsel, the court found two instances of misconduct. First, trial counsel, despite the court having sustained a defense counsel objection, repeated a statement concerning the defense’s expert witness. This statement, according to Mr. Li, was meant to show that the expert minimized the injury to a child with paralysis and therefore generally minimized personal injuries. The appellate court found the conduct deliberate, especially considering that the statement was repeated during closing arguments after the trial court sustained the defense objection.
The appeals court deemed it improper that Mr. Gonsalves’ counsel referenced workers’ compensation and private insurance during trial, especially after the court made clear these were not to be mentioned during trial. Pretrial arguments concerned the admissibility of workers’ compensation and private insurance evidence, and Mr. Gonsalves argued the evidence was irrelevant.
At issue was the fact that the jury was not to consider whether insurance funds were available to compensate Mr. Gonsalves, since it suggested he would receive double recovery if he were awarded damages at trial. Mr. Li would also be prejudiced by the suggestion that the judgment would be covered by insurance proceeds, and not out of pocket. The court held that this behavior is misconduct.
In sum, the court looked to the cumulative prejudice of the admission of Mr. Li’s denials of Mr. Gonsalves’ requests for admission and questions concerning those denials, Mr. Gonsalves’s counsel questioning Mr. Li about the substantial cause of the accident, and the admission of Mr. Li’s speeding tickets. Furthermore, the court held it to be misconduct when Mr. Gonsalves’ trial counsel restated that he had previously represented a paralyzed child, and finally when trial counsel referenced Mr. Gonsalves’ obligation to reimburse the workers’ compensation system from his potential recovery at trial.
The reversible error standard asks whether there is a reasonable probability of a more favorable result for Mr. Li in the absence of the errors. Here, the court stated that the case turned on the parties’ credibility. Due to multiple evidentiary errors and instances of attorney misconduct, the court held that a more favorable result for Mr. Li was reasonably probable, had the errors not occurred.
The court vacated the judgment and remanded to the trial court for a new trial.
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More Blog Posts:
California Court of Appeals Upholds Decision to Grant New Trial on Damages in Bus Accident Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, June 26, 2015
California Court of Appeals Rules on Liability of Motor Carrier for Negligence of Contract Driver, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 13, 2015