Witness credibility is often a key issue in a car accident case. For that reason, plaintiffs and defendants can introduce evidence designed to question—or impeach—the credibility of the other party. Judges may limit the types of evidence admissible for impeachment purposes, however, in order to avoid unfairly prejudicing the jury against a party.
Petit Larceny, Manslaughter Convictions Not Relevant to Accident Case
For example, a federal magistrate judge in Manhattan recently ruled that the defendants in a car accident lawsuit could not introduce evidence related to the plaintiff's prior criminal convictions in order to challenge his credibility. In 2012, the plaintiff was convicted of petit larceny and sentenced to one year in jail after serving as the getaway driver in a shoplifting incident. Thirty-one years earlier, in 1985, the plaintiff was also convicted of manslaughter, for which he served three years in prison.
Under the rules governing evidence in federal trials, a witness's prior criminal convictions are admissible for purposes of attacking his “truthfulness” under certain circumstances. A conviction must be admitted if it involves an offense that required proof or admission of “a dishonest act or false statement.” And convictions more than 10 years old are only admissible if “its probative value, supported by specific facts and circumstances, substantially outweighs its prejudicial effect.”
In this case, the magistrate judge said the plaintiff's four-year-old petit larceny conviction did not meet the “dishonest act or false statement” test. Prior decisions by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which bind all trial courts in New York, have said just the opposite. While the court still has the discretion to admit the larceny conviction, the judge here declined to do so because of the “danger that the jury will [improperly] interpret the conviction...as indicating a predilection for unsafe or reckless driving.”
With respect to the 1985 manslaughter conviction, this obviously falls with the federal ten-year rule. Accordingly, the magistrate judge said this conviction was inadmissible unless the defendants could explain what specific “facts and circumstances” justified a contrary finding. The defendants argued the manslaughter conviction undermined the plaintiff's claim that he unable to find work since the car accident—in other words, they argued he really could not find work due to his felony record. The magistrate judge rejected this premise, noting it was “not supported by any evidence, but appears to be based merely on the impression that “if one is a felon, employers may determine not to hire a prospective employee solely on that basis.” More to the point, the magistrate judge noted the plaintiff was not claiming lost employment earnings in his lawsuit, so this entire line of inquiry was irrelevant.