California Court Upholds Verdict Despite Improper Testimony and Misconduct by Attorney

In a case before the California Court of Appeal, the court addressed whether the plaintiffs were entitled to a new trial based on improper trial testimony regarding causation. This case involved a multiple-vehicle crash on a multi-lane freeway, leading to a personal injury lawsuit for damages.  The court acknowledged the improper conduct of the attorney who elicited the testimony regarding causation, but it held the error to be correctable and not critical to the outcome of the case.

Plaintiffs Leo Pope and Judi Nightingale were hit by a car driven by Debbie Sert.  Ms. Sert was no longer a party to the matter because she settled with the plaintiffs prior to the trial. She was a young, inexperienced driver with three passengers, on her way home from a weekend partying in Palm Springs.

Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale brought a lawsuit against Thomas Stanley, who allegedly made a negligent lane change, causing Ms. Sert to lose control of her car and hit Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale’s car.  Mr. Stanley was not involved in the accident, and he did not stop at the scene.  Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale also sued the vehicle’s owner, Matthew Babick.

At the trial, Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale asked the court to exclude testimony provided by two CHP officers who had responded to the accident.  The judge ruled that the officers could not testify about causation unless Mr. Stanley’s lawyers introduced evidence to “lay the foundation” for this kind of testimony.

Nevertheless, during testimony, Mr. Babick’s attorney, Gregory Kane, asked one of the CHP officers who caused the accident.  The officer responded that it was Ms. Sert’s fault. Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale asked for a mistrial. The judge instead issued a special jury instruction stating that the jury was not to consider the officer’s opinion blaming the accident on Ms. Sert.

The jury deliberated and ruled in favor of Mr. Stanley. In rejecting the request for a mistrial or motion for a new trial, the trial court stated that the CHP officer’s testimony was not as significant as the couple claimed.  The error must be so serious that nothing the judge could do would correct the error. Here, the judge stated that his instruction to the jury making clear they were to ignore the CHP officer’s causation testimony sufficiently corrected the problem.

In their analysis, the appellate court stated that the trial judge was correct in his assessment that the error was correctable.  A mistrial may have been appropriate if the jury ruled in Mr. Stanley’s favor based only on the CHP officer’s testimony, but here the court stated that ultimately the officer did not know who caused the accident.

The jury was free to believe Mr. Stanley’s “perfectly credible story” and reject Ms. Sert’s version. The court stated that given all the evidence, it was logical for the jury to believe that a young, inexperienced driver returning home from a party weekend caused the accident.  The court held that the jury’s verdict was supported by substantial evidence.

Regarding the allegation of Mr. Kane’s misconduct, the court stated that they disapproved of Mr. Kane’s actions, since he disregarded a court order. The court stated that in order to grant a motion for mistrial, the standard is an abuse of discretion. Here, the court held that the lower court acted appropriately in choosing to admonish the jury, based on the expected testimony of Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale’s expert.

The appellate court also reviewed the trial court’s denial of the motion for a new trial, stating that when attorney misconduct is an issue, the court must independently consider whether the misconduct resulted in prejudice. The court stated that the misconduct here was one question on a single occasion.  The jury had been instructed that the testimony was to be disregarded. The appellate court stated that it was sufficient to remedy the single, although inexcusable, instance of misconduct.

The court also stated that given the entire record, they could not find prejudice sufficient to warrant reversal. While Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale argued that the jury could only have found in favor of Mr. Stanley if they had placed weight on the excluded statement of the CHP officer, the court disagreed.  There was highly damaging evidence to Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale. It was not reasonably probable that the jury would have arrived at a verdict more favorable to Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale without the CHP officer’s testimony. The court found that the trial court did not err in denying either of Mr. Pope and Ms. Nightingale’s motions.  They affirmed the judgment.

The car accident attorneys at Sharifi Firm can assist if you or a loved one have been injured in an accident in Southern California.  Contact our office today for a free consultation by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Holds Plaintiffs Entitled to Costs of Proof Due to Defendants’ Failure to Admit Requests for Admissions, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, September 18, 2015

California Appeals Court Remands for New Trial in Car Accident Case Involving Issues of Credibility, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 17, 2015

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