Trial Judge’s Abuse of Discretion for Prejudicial Admitting Evidence

Submitted by New Jersey Civil Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

Factually, this case addresses a plaintiff’s pre-and post car accident history relative to the subject of the law suit.  The defense attorney asked questions about a plaintiff’s driving history in front of the jury in an effort to show the plaintiff was involved in 5 other accident after this accident, regardless of fault, so this accident was his fault too!, or rather, he was just a bad driver who get rear-ended all the time by tractor trailers.

Generally, “[e]videntiary decisions are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard because, from its genesis, the decision to admit or exclude evidence is one firmly entrusted to the trial court’s discretion.” Estate of Hanges v. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 202 N.J. 369, 383-84 (2010). A court abuses its discretion when it makes a clear error of judgment. State v. Marrero, 148 N.J. 469, 483-84 (1997). If an evidentiary ruling was erroneous, the appellate court will not reverse the judgment unless “the error was ‘clearly capable of producing an unjust result.‘” Manata v. Pereira, 436 N.J. Super. 330, 343-44 (App. Div. 2014) (quoting Green v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 160 N.J. 480, 502 (1999)).

Our analysis of the trial court’s decision to admit evidence of Corrales’s other accidents invokes the interplay between several evidence rules. “Except as otherwise provided in these rules or by law, all relevant evidence is admissible.” N.J.R.E. 402. “‘Relevant evidence’ means evidence having a tendency in reason to prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of the action.” N.J.R.E. 401. N.J.R.E. 403 provides that relevant evidence “may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of:

(a) undue prejudice, confusion of issues, or misleading the jury or

(b) undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

In determining whether evidence is relevant, “the trial court should focus on ‘the logical connection between the proffered evidence and a fact in issue[,]’ or ‘the tendency of evidence to establish the proposition that it is offered to prove.‘” Wymbs v. Twp. of Wayne, 163 N.J. 523, 534 (2000) (quoting Green, supra, 160 N.J. at 492). In the present case, a logical relationship between Corrales’s other accidents and the accident involved here was not established.

As a matter of fact, at the outset, we note that the trial court found that “Corrales, on cross-examination, testified that he had recently been involved in several other accidents with tractor[-]trailer trucks changing lanes.” This finding is erroneous, and mischaracterizes Corrales’s testimony. Rather, Corrales denied that he had changed lanes prior to the March 26, 2010 accident, and he did not know whether Murray had done so, since he was struck from behind and had not previously observed Murray’s vehicle.

Similarly, the judge’s conclusion that Corrales’s other accidents were “essentially identical to the accident in this case” lacks support in the record. Corrales testified that a tractor-trailer changed lanes and “rear-ended” him on the Verrazano Bridge in February 2013. On that occasion, he was driving his work cement truck rather than a passenger vehicle. With respect to the accident in Elizabeth, Corrales testified that he was driving a Nissan Altima and that the tractor-trailer “hit me on the left side of my car.” No testimony was elicited that Corrales’s car was struck from the rear or that either vehicle changed lanes. Thus, of the three accidents described by Corrales, none occurred in the same manner.

As noted, the trial court based its ruling on N.J.R.E. 403, balancing the probative value of the evidence against its potential for prejudice. However, admission of the evidence regarding Corrales’s other accidents to show that he “was not a good driver” also implicates, and violates, N.J.R.E. 404. The rule generally prohibits “[e]vidence of a person’s character . . . including a trait of care or skill or lack thereof . . . for the purpose of proving that the person acted in conformity therewith on a particular occasion . . . .” N.J.R.E. 404(a). Evidence of other wrongs or bad acts to prove that a person “acted in conformity therewith” is similarly prohibited unless admitted for other purposes. N.J.R.E. 404(b). While the rule is most commonly applied in the criminal context, it also applies in civil cases. See, e.g., Showalter v. Barilari, Inc., 312 N.J. Super. 494, 511-12 (App. Div. 1998); Burbridge v. Paschal, 239 N.J. Super. 139, 155 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 122 N.J. 360 (1990); Harris v. Peridot Chem. (NJ), Inc., 313 N.J. Super. 257, 277-78 (App. Div. 1998).

We conclude that admission of the evidence of Corrales’s other accidents to show that he was a bad driver, and, implicitly, at fault in the accident at issue in this case, was erroneous. Even if the proofs at trial had established that Corrales drove carelessly on those other occasions, “general evidence of careless driving is inadmissible to show how someone drove on a particular occasion.” Bogus, supra, 223 N.J. Super. at 428-29.

“While evidence of a character trait generally is inadmissible, evidence pertaining to a ‘habit‘ is permitted [u]nder N.J.R.E. 406.” Showalter, supra, 312 N.J. Super. at 512. The party offering habit evidence must establish conduct that is so uniform that it amounts to a nearly automatic response to a specified situation. Verni v. Harry M. Stevens, Inc. of N.J., 387 N.J. Super. 160, 190-91 (App. Div. 2006), certif. denied, 189 N.J. 429 (2007). Thus, for example, “evidence that an individual repeatedly drove carelessly on a particular part of a particular road is admissible” under the rule. Bogus, supra, 223 N.J. Super. at 429 (citing Evid. R. 49, the prior version of N.J.R.E. 406).

The only issue for which habit evidence arguably could have been relevant in this case was whether Corrales had a specific, routine practice of carelessly cutting in front of tractor- trailer trucks. Here, defendant’s proofs failed to demonstrate, with specificity, that Corrales engaged in such habitual conduct.

Having established the evidence introduced was not proper, and not inconformity with Evidence Rules, 401, 403, 402, 403, 404 and 406 the court’s next step is to determine if the jury’s hearing that evidence produced an unjust result requiring a new trial.

Rule 2:10-2 provides that “[a]ny error or omission shall be disregarded by the appellate court unless it is of such a nature as to have been clearly capable of producing an unjust result . . . .” In State v. Bankston, 63 N.J. 263, 273 (1973), the Court stated the “test of whether an error is harmless depends upon some degree of possibility that it led to an unjust verdict” and “led the jury to a result it otherwise might not have reached.”

Here, we cannot conclude that admission of the evidence was harmless. Whether Murray operated his vehicle negligently largely depended on whether the jury found his version of events more credible than Corrales’s account. The court’s error was magnified during defense counsel’s summation, when he highlighted Corrales’s involvement in other accidents and portrayed Murray as “a very good driver” and Corrales as “not a good driver.” As a consequence, we determine that the evidence was improperly admitted and, in light of the jury’s verdict, that its admission likely prejudiced plaintiff.

For additional analysis of this case see Gonzalez-Caceres v. Murray

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