Credibility is often the key to winning a personal injury claim. In a car accident lawsuit, for example, a court is often called upon to sort out conflicting versions of events. If you are the victim of a car accident seeking damages, the defense will make effort to undermine your credibility with the jury.
Appeals Court Orders New Trial in Bus Accident Case
But there are limits on how far a defendant may go, as illustrated in a recent decision by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. This case involves a woman injured in a bus accident. She was driving her car and stopped at a red light when she was struck from behind by the bus.
The bus owner conceded its driver’s negligence caused the accident. A jury then had to decide whether the plaintiff was entitled to any damages. At trial, the defendant’s attorney tried to challenge the plaintiff’s credibility by implying she had a drug problem. During cross-examination, the defense attorney asked the plaintiff if she had ever failed a workplace drug test. She replied that she had, but it turned out to be a false positive, which was confirmed after she took a second test. Undaunted, the defense attorney then attempted to pursue the issue a second time when questioning her own medical expert. She asked the expert to comment on the plaintiff’s “drug use history” based on annotations in the plaintiff’s medical records, which were made by another doctor.
Ultimately, the jury ruled the plaintiff did not suffer a “serious injury” in the accident as required by New York law but still awarded her approximately $26,000 in economic damages related to the accident. The plaintiff appealed, arguing the defense attorney’s conduct effectively deprived her of a fair trial.
The Fourth Department agreed. The court said the defense attorney was wrong in trying to use the workplace drug test “in an attempt to impeach the plaintiff’s credibility.” It was also wrong for the defense’s medical expert to offer an opinion on the plaintiff’s credibility based on her medical records. Indeed, the entries in the medical records cited by the defense were not admissible as evidence under these circumstances.
The appeals court also chided the defense for asking the plaintiff if she had ever been involved in a prior personal injury lawsuit arising from a different car accident. Such information is irrelevant, the court said, and the trial judge was wrong to even allow the question. Taken as a whole, the Fourth Department said, all of these errors justified granting the plaintiff a new trial on the issue of damages.