Jury Verdict Holding Driver Not Liable for Crash Survives Despite Improper Testimony

Pomona_FreewayAssessing fault in multi-vehicle crashes, especially those on multi-lane freeways, can be particularly challenging. The driver who creates a chain reaction of danger and harm may not be physically involved in the accident at all, and pinning causation on a driver not involved in an accident is often very difficult. This scenario played out in one couple’s unsuccessful recent lawsuit against a driver who allegedly made an improper lane change. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the outcome, even though the jury heard improper causation testimony from a CHP officer, since the trial judge issued a special jury instruction making clear that the jury was required to ignore the officer’s statement.

In 2008, Leo Pope and Judi Nightingale were driving on Interstate 10 in San Bernardino County when a vehicle driven by 19-year-old Debbie Sert struck them. Pope and Nightingale sued both the teenager and another driver, Thomas Stanley. Stanley, they claimed, made an improper lane change into Sert’s lane, causing her to lose control of her car. Stanley was not involved in the accident and did not stop at the scene. The police report stated that Sert, not Stanley, caused the accident by making an unsafe lane change.

Pope and Nightingale settled with Sert and proceeded to trial only against Stanley (for his allegedly improper lane change) and Matthew Babick, the owner of the car Stanley was driving. Pope and Nightingale asked the trial court to exclude the testimony of the two CHP officers who responded to the accident. The judge ruled that the officers could not testify about who caused the accident unless Stanley’s lawyers introduced sufficient preliminary evidence to “lay the foundation” for the officers’ causation testimony.

However, while one of the officers was on the witness stand, Babick’s attorney, with no prior foundation, asked the officer who, in his opinion, caused the accident. The officer stated that the accident was Sert’s fault. Pope and Nightingale’s attorneys asked for a mistrial, but the trial judge issued a special instruction to the jury stating that Babick’s attorney had violated the court’s order about causation testimony from the CHP officers, and that the jury was not allowed to consider the officer’s opinion blaming the accident on Sert.

After three days’ deliberation, the jury ruled in favor of Stanley. Pope and Nightingale appealed, arguing that the court should have granted their mistrial request or subsequent motion for a new trial, due to the lawyer’s misconduct regarding the causation testimony. Ultimately, the appeal was unsuccessful. The trial court had reasoned, in denying the couple’s requests, that the impact of the officer’s testimony was not as significant as the couple claimed it was. Mistrials or new trials ordered due to attorney misconduct are only proper when the error that has occurred was so serious that nothing the judge could do would correct it. In this case, the trial judge concluded that his detailed instruction to the jury requiring them to ignore the officer’s causation testimony was sufficient to correct the problem, especially when considering that the couple’s expert witness had offered testimony that debunked much of what the CHP officers said on the stand.

The appeals court upheld the trial judge’s assessment that the error was correctable. If the only basis the jury had for ruling in Stanley’s favor had been the officer’s improper testimony, a mistrial or new trial would have been necessary. In Pope and Nightingale’s case, they had other unfavorable evidence working against them, including the fact that their own expert testified that one factor in the wreck was Sert’s overreaction to the situation, due to her young age and driving inexperience.

Freeway accident cases can be complicated, and they are even more so if the driver truly at fault was not involved in the wreck. If you’ve been involved in a freeway accident, you need experienced, thoughtful advice about how to proceed and whether suing a particular driver has the potential for success. For assistance with your auto accident case, consult the experienced Oakland car crash attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our personal injury attorneys can help you decide on a plan that gives you the best chance of success in getting the recovery you’re owed. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

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California Appellate Court Wrong for Allowing Prejudicial Evidence of Crash Victim’s Marijuana Use, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Sept. 30, 2014

Injured Trucker, Passenger Can Use Doctors, Not Unpaid Bills to Establish the Value of Medical Services, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Aug. 15, 2014

Photo credit: Bmamlyuk at Wikimedia Commons.