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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Formula 409: Fictional Superman Trial Illustrates General Inadmissibility Of Offers To Pay Medical Expenses

Matthew Nelson has had a couple of recent posts in the Examiner (here and here) about "Whine, Whine, Whine," a second season episode from the TV show, "Lois & Clark," in which a musician sues Superman after the Man of Steel allegedly breaks his arm while rescuing him (which amusingly leads, not to a "Watchmen"-esque ban on superheroes, but simply several citizens of Metropolis bringing bogus personal injury claims against Supes).  During the ensuing trial, Superman testifies that he offered to pay the musician's medical expenses.  According to Nelson,

     "Although the federal rules of evidence state that such a statement cannot be considered an admission of guilt and a jury will be instructed as such, it is highly likely that a jury would interpret such a statement in this way. The logical conclusion is that most people would not offer to pay another person's medical expenses if the person who made that offer did not cause that harm."

Thus, Nelson concludes, "Much of this boils down to seeing that someone who is injured in your place of business gets that necessary medical treatment but also being sure to keep your mouth shut as much as possible and follow your attorney's advice to the letter."

While I agree with Nelson that it is usually a good (legal) idea to keep your mouth shut after an accident/injury, you really don't need to worry about offering to pay the victim's medical expenses.  That is because, as Nelson alludes to, Federal Rule of Evidence 409 (as well as most state counterparts) indicates that:  "Evidence of furnishing or offering or promising to pay medical, hospital, or similar expenses occasioned by an injury is not admissible to prove liability for the injury."

Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely that such offers to pay medical expenses will be admissible to prove any permissible purpose.  One rare instance where an offer to pay medical expenses may be admissible would be if: (a) there is a three car pile-up between Bob, Carol, and Ted, and Bob offers to pay the medical expenses of Carol, who is Caucasian, but not Ted, who is African-American, and (b) Ted claims at trial that Bob intentionally struck his car because of his race and seeks to use Bob's offer to pay Carol's medical expenses, but not his, as evidence of his racial bias.  But as I noted, these situations are exceedingly rare.

What this means is that if Superman were being tried in a real court of law, his attorney almost certainly would have instructed him not to mention that he offered to pay the musician's medical expenses and would have been able to object successfully to any attempt by the plaintiff's attorney to elicit testimony on the subject.  What this means is that if someone gets injured and you think that you might be responsible, you should listen to your heart, damn the torpedoes, and offer to pay his or her medical expenses.

-CM

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