Many car accidents in New York are of the hit and run variety—that is, the driver who caused the accident leaves the scene without speaking to the other drive or waiting for the police to arrive and take an official report. Leaving the scene of an accident is against the law. If someone is injured in an accident, the hit-and-run driver may be charged with a Class A misdemeanor.
Judge Says Jury May Know Accident Involved a “Hit and Run”
But does the fact an accident involved a hit and run have any effect on a subsequent personal injury lawsuit brought by the victim? A federal judge in Manhattan recently addressed this question. The underlying lawsuit arose from a February 2011 accident on Interstate 84. A tractor-trailer veered into a neighboring lane of the highway, striking the victim's vehicle, which subsequently crashed into a snowbank. The tractor trailer drove away.
The victim subsequently sued the owner and the unknown (“John Doe”) driver of the tractor-trailer. The defendants admitted liability for the accident itself but they have challenged “the nature and extent of Plaintiff's injuries and whether the accident caused any or all of them.” The case is presently scheduled for a jury trial on these issues at the end of February 2016.
Prior to trial, however, the defendants raised a number of objections to the plaintiff's proposed evidence. For one thing, the defendants asked the judge to prevent the plaintiff from telling the jury this was a “hit and run” accident. The defendants argued that since they already admitted liability, the nature of the accident was irrelevant to the issue of the plaintiff's injuries and request for damages.
One thing to keep in mind here is this case is being tried in federal court. While federal judges must apply the substantive law of New York in personal injury cases like this one, there are distinct federal rules governing the admissibility of evidence at trial.
In this case, the judge said neither the plaintiff nor the defendants could a “federal case for the proposition that evidence of the happening or details of the accident are relevant (or irrelevant) to the question of damages.” That being said, the judge noted that other federal courts have held evidence of such details may be relevant, and not unduly prejudicial, even when the defendant has already conceded responsibility for the accident. But this evidence must be related to the nature of the plaintiff's injuries.
For that reason, the judge said the fact that the accident was a “hit and run” had no relevance to the plaintiff's claim for damages based on her physical injuries. But it might be relevant to her claims for “emotional suffering.” The judge said the jury could decide, after hearing all of the evidence, “that the 'hit and run' nature of the accident had a significant effect on the emotional trauma [the plaintiff] suffered as a result of the collision.” Accordingly, the plaintiff will be allowed to present evidence to the jury on this subject.