Appellate court upholds head injury verdict against trucking company; affirms sanctions for improper conduct
The attorneys for Michelle Button achieved a substantial verdict on her behalf against Tim Bills Trucking, Inc., after Button's car was rear-ended in the left lane and driven into the median of US-131. The trial proved to be mess of lies and misconduct by the Defendant, ultimately resulting in a judgment of $1.3 million dollars, including almost $100,000.00 in costs and sanctions.
The Defendant appealed, making numerous arguments of error in the lower court, and in some cases, falsely alleging prejudicial conduct by the judge. The majority of the Court of Appeals, including staunch Republican William Whitbeck, wrote a lengthy opinion confirming the propriety of the trial judge's conduct and the rulings that Bill's Trucking's insurer decried. Sadly, Judge O'Connell, a jurist whom we formerly held in high regard, continued his trend of anti-victim opinions in a weakly-supported dissent.
It came out at trial that Bill's Trucking's driver had lied to the police immediately after the wreck about how it happened. On the stand, a friendly Bill's witness denied that he had given a statement to Bill's agent the day after the wreck. Bill's driver refused to attend the trial, and Bill's counsel offered no evidence to identify his whereabouts or to document an attempt to compel his attendance. Bill's head injury expert's testimony after an independent medical examination was limited because of his own misconduct during discovery. The court majority reviewed each claim of error carefully and documented the legal basis for each ruling by the Court. It held that the judge did not err by allowing into evidence the driver's admissions, without allowing his self-serving explanations, since there was no proof that he was actually "unavailable" at trial--a necessity for admitting deposition testimony that is self-serving.
The Court held that the dissent's argument that the driver's deposition should have been admitted in its entirety as a "recorded statement" was waived by the Defendant who never raised that argument, and, in any event, the "entirety" rule did not "trump" the rules governing admissible hearsay. The Court confirmed that the trial judge may have erred by admitting evidence of the multiple equipment violations identified when the Bill's truck was inspected, given that the Court had directed a verdict on the issue of "negligent entrustment" of the vehicle, but relied on prior decisions of the court to hold this potential error "harmless." Since all parties agreed that a competent driver would not have operated a truck with bald tires, the evidence was relevant to the question of the driver's competency, and therefore relevant to the disputed issue of his fault.
On other issues, the Court pointed out that the defendant's head injury expert was not allowed to offer rebuttal testimony about optical injury due to a prior ruling limiting his testimony because of "misbehavior." He and defendant were "hoisted at their own petard," by improper conduct, not because of a substantive error in evaluating admissible evidence.
Further, the defense attorneys falsely accused the trial judge of improperly commenting on the evidence and on their ethics: after being informed that the eye-witness had lied about being contacted by the trucking company the day after the collision, the judge simply informed the jury that "evidently he was and Mr. Bremer evidently knew it." The Court pointed out that this statement was within the court's discretion, pursuant to Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3, as a response to "demonstrably false testimony."
Finally, with regard to sanctions awarded, the Court confirmed that the Defendant had no reasonable basis for denying the requested admission that Plaintiff's car was struck from behind by Defendant's truck. At trial, Defendant's expert admitted this fact; the vehicle damage was inconsistent with any other explanation; and the driver testified he did not see where or how Plaintiff's car was struck. Under the circumstances, Defendant was required to pay the cost of this unnecessary proof by operation of Court Rule.