Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeals in Maniglia v. Carpenter reversed an earlier verdict in plaintiff’s favor and ordered a new trial, finding excluded evidence was significantly valuable to the court and outweighed any purported prejudice against the plaintiff. Further, appellate justices ruled plaintiff failed to prove that excluded evidence didn’t contribute to the verdict in his favor.
The evidence at issue goes to the heart of the case: Plaintiff’s credibility and causation of his injuries. Specifically, his attorneys sought (successfully in the first trial) to exclude evidence pertaining to an alleged drunken golf cart accident and subsequent violent altercation with police involving plaintiff about a month after the car accident at the center of the lawsuit.
Plaintiff attorneys argued that references to plaintiff being intoxicated and fighting with law enforcement would significantly harm the plaintiff’s case, even though it had nothing to do with his car accident claim. Defense argued the evidence should be allowed. Trial judge decided with plaintiff. Now, the appeals court has ruled that was the wrong decision.
To understand why, we have to examine the case in closer detail. The underlying auto accident occurred in September 2009. Defendant was changing lanes on a South Florida highway at night when a collision occurred between his vehicle and that of plaintiff. It was described by defendant and his passenger/brother as a “bump.” However, plaintiff described the impact as a “severe sideswiping.” This dispute of material fact creates a situation where the credibility of the parties involve matter a great deal.
Day after the crash, plaintiff seeks medical attention from a chiropractor. Plaintiff said he was suffering right-side neck pain and pain in his back. The doctor would later testify imaging tests didn’t reveal any acute injury. There was, however, some disc narrowing, which he described as normal wear-and-tear. Physician released plaintiff with no work restrictions.
About one month later, the golf cart/ police altercation incident occurred. Plaintiff was reportedly participating in a golf tournament and at some point, drove his golf cart onto a public road. The golf cart was struck by a car, and plaintiff fell from the cart onto the pavement. When police arrived to the scene, they described plaintiff as intoxicated. They indicated he did not have permission to use the cart, he yelled profanity at officers and physically fought with them – swinging fists, kicking and wrestling on the ground. He was arrested for battery on a law enforcement officer, a felony.
All of this might not be relevant to the earlier case except for the fact that there was no evidence plaintiff told the chiropractor of this incident when he visited the office two weeks later complaining of ongoing back and neck pain. Chiropractor at that visit ordered an MRI, and after viewing the results, recommended surgery.
Failure to disclose the incident to his doctor could mar plaintiff’s credibility, and the incident also raises questions regarding causation of his injuries. Defense asserted there was evidence the injuries plaintiff sustained were not caused by the earlier crash, but rather from falling out of the golf cart and physically fighting with police.
It makes sense that plaintiff attorneys would want to block this information, not necessarily for the fact that it may cast doubt on plaintiff’s claims, but because the simple allegation of being drunk in public and being disrespectful to and fighting with police is prejudicial in jurors’ eyes. Most people would see it as a stain on his character. However, in order to allow such information, the defense would have to show the value of it outweighed the irrelevant prejudice.
That’s where the appeals court ruled trial court erred.
Jurors at the first trial decided the case in plaintiff’s favor, but the appeals court determined a significant factor in that decision could have been this evidence that was improperly excluded.
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Maniglia v. Carpenter , Nov. 4, 2015, Third District Court of Appeal
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