Three car accident: no one is responsible?
Cindy Clardy was hurt when the car in which she was riding was involved in a motor vehicle accident in Jackson County. A medical student, Friedland, had struck a barricade and his car had become disabled, blocking the left traffic lane of the highway. Restrick was traveling in that left lane and struck Friedland's car. Clardy was riding with Walters, whose vehicle also struck the Friedland vehicle. After the case was filed, Restrick's insurer sought summary disposition and it was granted. Friedland then won a jury verdict of "no cause for action." The Court of Appeals did not describe the outcome of the claim against Walters and his insurer--it may not have gone to trial at this point. It is also possible that Walters' liability insurer settled the claim against Walters, or that it motivated the appeal of the negative outcomes against the other insurers in order to reduce its payout: we simply cannot tell from the Court's opinion.Clardy appealed both the summary disposition granted to Restrick and the jury verdict in favor of Friedland. Her attorneys claimed that the Restrick claim should have gone to the jury and that the trial judge allowed errors in trial procedure to taint the jury verdict against Friedland.
With regard to Restrick, the Court of Appeals noted that although Restrick was clearly negligent (traveling at above the speed limit), there was no evidence adduced at trial to support the claim that his impact with Friedland's car changed the likelihood or force of Walters' car striking it. Apparently, there was no testimony about the relative positions of the vehicles before and after impact. If that is accurate, it would be impossible to prove that Restrick's negligence in striking the car contributed to Clardy's injuries. Either no one knew the attitude of impact of the two vehicles and their relative positions, or Clardy's attorneys did a poor job of presenting her case. Usually this evidence would be available through accident reconstruction.
With regard to the claim against Friedland, the outcome is not so clear cut: Clardy's lawyers argued that the judge erred by allowing Friedland's attorney to question their own client about student loan debt necessary to complete medical school. The Plaintiff pointed out that this "evidence" was irrelevant and an obvious effort to imply to the jury that Friedland would be paying any verdict and that the verdict would have a "punitive" impact. Clardy's lawyers also objected to argument by Friedman's insurer's lawyer suggesting that a motor vehicle accident creates an "opportunity" and referring to "other defendants" since dismissed from the lawsuit.
The Court of Appeals ignored the obvious deliberate effort of counsel to prejudice the jurors with irrelevant evidence, and deemed these statements to be "passing references" that were at most harmless error. The panel of judges suggested that the Complaint identifying the "other defendants" [not identified in the opinion] could have been admitted into evidence, making the latter reference acceptable, however, the Court of Appeals did not address the fact that the trial judge also could have denied admission of the Complaint into evidence if Clardy's attorneys sought amendment to conform to the current state of the case. Potential admissibility is not really the issue: the issue is whether the remark had a legitimate purpose. Since the Defendant was not claiming that other individuals were guilty of causing the collision, the remark was clearly offered with the deliberate intent of prejudicing the Plaintiff's claim.
Similarly, the Court refused to acknowledge that his counsel's questioning of Friedland regarding student loans was a deliberate attempt to prejudice the jury. It suggested that "The question was a fleeting reference to the cost of medical school, not to defendant's ability or inability to pay a judgment." Since when is the high cost of school irrelevant to the ability to pay for a mistake?
This testimony was obviously not relevant to any issue involved in the case, and it was clearly interjected to make the jury focus on Friedland's ability to pay--since the Plaintiff was not allowed to admit into evidence the fact or amount of Friedland's liability insurance. The Court of Appeals next suggested that "even if" the remark was inappropriate and error, it was "cured" by the judge's standard instruction that sympathy should not influence the jury's decision.
Probably, if the Clardy case stands for anything, it is the appellate court's extreme reluctance to overturn a jury verdict-- and perhaps particularly if the verdict is in favor of insurers.