In a personal injury lawsuit arising from a motor vehicle accident, a jury may find both parties liable to some degree. A jury may also reduce a damage award to a successful plaintiff if it finds certain actions (or inactions) contributed to his or her injuries. But trial judges must exercise care in presenting a case to a jury so as not to unfairly prejudice the plaintiff's interests, as a recent decision by the Appellate Division, Second Department, illustrates.
Robles v. Polytemp, Inc.
This case began with a 2008 traffic accident in Westchester County involving two vehicles. One driver claimed he suffered serious injuries and subsequently sued the driver and owner of the second vehicle. The case was tried before a jury in Westchester Supreme Court, which returned a verdict finding the defendants 65% liable for the accident, while the plaintiff was 35% at fault.
The jury was then tasked with awarding damages. The jury found the plaintiff’s injuries—including pain and suffering, lost wages and medical expenses—amounted to just over $1 million. The jury then reduced this to $800,000 after determining, based on the evidence presented at trial, that the “plaintiff was not using his seat belt at the time of the accident.” Consistent with the jury's earlier apportionment of liability, the judge made a final award of about $525,000, representing 65% of the $800,000 figure.
Both sides appealed. The Second Department, in an April 22 opinion, upheld the jury's verdict in all respects save one—the decision to reduce the $1 million damage calculation by $200,000 because the plaintiff was not wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident. The appeals court said the trial judge should never have submitted the issue of the plaintiff's failure to use a seat belt in the first place.
At trial, the judge admitted the plaintiff's hospital records, which contained a notation he was not wearing a seatbelt when the accident occurred. The plaintiff objected, both before the trial court and on appeal, that this part of the hospital record should have been redacted as inadmissible hearsay. Both courts rejected that argument. The Second Department explained normally, “A hearsay entry in a hospital record is admissible under the business records exception to the hearsay rule only if the entry is germane to the diagnosis or treatment of the patient.” That did not apply here. What did apply was another exception allowing the jury to see the record if it reveals information “inconsistent with a position taken by a party at trial.” In this case, the plaintiff testified he was wearing his seatbelt when the accident occurred. To the extent the hospital records contradicted this testimony, the Second Department said the trial court properly admitted the evidence.
That said, the appeals court said the trial judge “nonetheless erred in submitting the seat belt defense to the jury, since the defendants failed to demonstrate, by competent evidence, that the plaintiff's injuries would have been minimized had he been wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident.” In other words, it was not enough for the defendants to simply prove the plaintiff was not wearing his seatbelt. They had to provide competent medical evidence this failure contributed to his injuries. They failed to do so, the Second Department said, and therefore the jury should not have reduced its damage award to the plaintiff on that basis. The plaintiff was therefore entitled to 65% of the full $1 million.
The Second Department's decision means the plaintiff will receive over $130,000 more as compensation for his injuries. This is why skilled legal representation matters. If you have been involved in an motor vehicle accident and need advice from an experienced New York personal injury attorney, contact our office right away.