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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Not That I'm Biased: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Misapplies Rule 408 In Automobile Accident Appeal

Like its federal counterpartMinnesota Rule of Evidence 408 provides that:

Evidence of (1) furnishing or offering or promising to furnish, or (2) accepting or offering or promising to accept, a valuable consideration in compromising or attempting to compromise a claim which was disputed as to either validity or amount, is not admissible to prove liability for or invalidity of the claim or its amount.  Evidence of conduct or statements made in compromise negotiations is likewise not admissible.  This rule does not require the exclusion of any evidence otherwise discoverable merely because it is presented in the course of compromise negotiations.  This rule also does not require exclusion when the evidence is offered for another purpose, such as proving bias or prejudice of a witness, negativing a contention of undue delay, or proving an effort to obstruct a criminal investigation or prosecution.
So, clearly evidence of settlement negotiations can be admissible to prove bias, but when is such evidence probative on the issue of whether a witness is biased? That was the question addressed by the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in its recent opinion in Lallas v. Paquette, 2009 WL 2015821 (Minn.App. 2009), and I think that it answered the question incorrectly.
In Paquette, 2009 WL 2015821 (Minn.App. 2009), 

In 2003, respondent Drake Lallas was involved in two automobile accidents. The first accident occurred in August, and the second in November, when a vehicle driven by appellant Lolita Paquette struck Lallas's vehicle from behind. Approximately two weeks after the August accident, Lallas started a job that required physical labor. Although Lallas experienced lower-back aches and soreness, his daily activities were not limited. Following the November accident, however, Lallas experienced severe back pain and was prescribed pain medication. Lallas attended physical therapy, as recommended by his physician, but reported no improvement. He was referred to Midwest Spine Institute, where ultimately he was seen by Louis Saeger, M.D., the clinic's pain specialist.

Lallas subsequently sued the owner of the vehicle in the August accident and Paquette in a single action, but the district court granted a motion to sever, and Lallas settled her claims related to the August accident. Meanwhile, the jury in the trial against Paquette "found both drivers negligent, and attributed 75% of the fault to Paquette and 25% to Lallas. The jury also found that Lallas had sustained a permanent injury, was entitled to past medical expenses and lost wages, and was entitled to $286,110 for future medical expenses."  

This verdict came after the trial judge precluded Paquette from introducing evidence that Lallas reached a settlement with the owner of the vehicle in the August accident. And after the entry of that verdict, Paquette appealed, claiming, inter alia, that this evidence should have been admissible to prove bias by Lallas, as Lallas "had every reason to minimize his injuries from the [August] accident, for he had already settled his claim with regard to that accident."

The Court of Appeals of Minnesota disagreed, concluding that

[t]he jury was not kept from hearing about the August accident or about Lallas's physical condition thereafter. Indeed, the jury accounted for the August accident when it reduced the award for future medical expenses by 15%, which is consistent with the expert's apportionment. Further, evidence of the prior settlement would not serve to demonstrate bias in any way in which that evidence about Lallas's injuries from the August accident did not.

What? Paquette seems close to me to the paradigmatic case where evidence of settlement negotiations is admissible to prove bias. This paradigmatic case, which I use in my Evidence class, is a car accident involving Alice, Bob, and Carol. Alice and Bob settle and subsequently sue (or are sued by) Carol. Alice and Bob both testify that Carol was (primarily) at fault for the accident. In this case, Carol is entitled to present evidence of the settlement between Alice and Bob because it proves their bias. In other words, having already reached a settlement, it does not benefit, and only harms, Alice to pin the blame on Bob and vice versa. Instead, based on their settlement it is in the best interests of Alice and Bob to pin the blame on Carol and hope that this leads to a large award of monetary damages.

The same (basically) applied to Lallas. Having already settled with the owner in the vehicle in the August accident, it did not benefit, and would have only harmed, him to pin the blame on him. Instead, based on his settlement, it was in his best interest to pin the blame on Lallas. Moreover, contrary to the court's conclusion, this evidence would have demonstrated bias in a way that the evidence about Lallas's injuries from the August accident did not. The simple fact that Lallas was in another accident did not prove that he would try to pin the blame on Paquette; if the other case went to trial, Lallas would have had no incentive to pin the fault (primarily) on Paquette because it would have hurt his chance of winning the other case. It was the fact that there was a settlement in the other case that established bias.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2009/07/408lallas-v-paquettenot-reported-in-nw2d-2009-wl-2015821minnapp2009.html

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