Improper Use of Driver’s Prior Traffic Offenses Derails $1.2M Award for Passenger

Performance_BMWA car salesman injured during a test drive when the customer crashed into a guardrail saw his $1.2 million award disappear due to a series of impermissible questions that the trial court allowed. The California Court of Appeal recently decided that the driver was entitled to a new trial after the trial court improperly allowed the salesman’s legal team to use the driver’s past speeding tickets as proof tending to indicate that the driver was negligent.

When Ran Li visited a BMW dealership in Concord, he probably never imagined that his test drive would be so eventful. While driving a M3, Li lost control of the vehicle on a highway ramp and crashed into a guardrail. Riding alongside Li was Kenneth Gonsalves, a salesman for the dealership. Gonsalves sued Li for major injuries he suffered to his back.

At trial, Gonsalves argued that the wreck was the result of Li’s unsafe driving. Li argued that the accident occurred due to changes in the car’s handling that occurred after the salesman told him to press the car’s “M” button. This feature allows drivers to program various aspects regarding the car’s performance. In Li’s case, he argued that his pressing the button caused the car to turn off its dynamic stability control, which led the car to lose control.

The jury ruled for the salesman in August 2013 and awarded him $1.2 million. The salesman’s victory was short-lived, however, since the appeals court awarded the driver a new trial earlier this month.

The problems that necessitated the new trial revolved around several questions that the trial court allowed the salesman’s legal team to ask the driver. Specifically, the salesman used the driver’s previous speeding tickets as evidence against him. Generally, traffic offenses are not admissible in cases like this. If Li had testified that he always observed and obeyed all traffic safety rules, the salesman could have used the driver’s tickets to poke holes in his credibility. However, in this case, Li admitted that he had been driving above the speed limit when he was on the highway. The tickets could not serve to impeach the driver’s testimony and could only serve as impermissible evidence of Li’s propensity to drive unsafely.

The trial court also improperly let the salesman use the driver’s answers to a series of “Requests for Admission” to show that Li had failed to take responsibility for his actions. Requests for Admission are a part of a civil case’s discovery process, in which one side asks the other side to admit to certain factual matters in order to avoid the need for additional fact-finding. Generally, a party denies most (or all) of the opponent’s requests. The statute that governs the discovery process does not allow a party to use the opposition’s denials as evidence. While the salesman could have used any part of a deposition of the driver, he could only use those requests for admission where the driver responded with an affirmative admission. Questioning the driver about his denials was out of bounds.

For answers and skilled advocacy regarding your personal injury issues, talk to the Oakland car accident attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our injury attorneys can help analyze your case and go after the compensation you deserve. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More blog posts:

Car Owner’s Failure to Maintain Vehicle Doesn’t Provide Grounds for Additional Recovery for Injured Passenger, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Nov. 28, 2014

California Appellate Court Wrong for Allowing Prejudicial Evidence of Crash Victim’s Marijuana Use, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Nov. 28, 2014

Photo credit: Ildar Sagdejev at Wikimedia Commons.