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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

High Risk Insurance: Court Of Appeals Of Iowa Finds Evidence Of Liability Insurance Admissible To Impeach Plaintiff

Like its federal counterpartIowa Rule of Evidence 5-411 provides that 

Evidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether he acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully. This rule does not require the exclusion of evidence of insurance against liability when offered for another purpose, such as proof of agency, ownership, or control, or bias or prejudice of a witness.

As the "such as" language from the Rule's second sentence makes clear, the listed permissible purposes are not exhaustive, just illustrative. This point is driven home by the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Iowa in Sweers v. Westfall, 2010 786036 (Iowa App. 2010), an opinion that also calls into question the efficacy of the Rule.

In Westfall, Scott Sweers,

was driving east on Kirkwood Boulevard in Iowa City. He was alone in his Audi, and was heading toward a fitness club that he used. A Jeep Liberty driven by Craig Westfall pulled north out off of a cross street that intersected Kirkwood Boulevard. Westfall intended to turn west on Kirkwood Boulevard. However, Westfall failed to see Sweers, and the left front bumper of his vehicle struck the passenger side of Sweers's smaller sedan. Photographs show that both right-side doors on Sweers's sedan were dented (the cost to repair Sweers's car was $3829), but no air bags in either vehicle deployed. Sweers was wearing his seatbelt. Sweers said he was okay at the time.

Sweers went home after the accident, but decided to seek medical treatment later that night. The emergency room notes indicate Sweers's “insurance agent recommended he come in for a check up."  

At trial, Sweers testified that he went to the emergency room after the car accident because he was "seriously worried about what was wrong with my shoulder." Thereafter, the trial court allowed defense counsel to impeach Sweers with evidence that he in fact went to the emergency room based upon the recommendation of of his insurance agent. After the jury only awarded Sweers $5206 in damages, he appealed, claiming, inter alia, that that the trial court improperly allowed for the admission of evidence that he had liability insurance.

The Court of Appeals of Iowa easily dispensed with this argument, concluding that the subject evidence was not introduced to prove that Sweers acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully; instead, it was introduced to impeach him. Having decided the issue, the court then went on to make the following observation:

jurors bring their common experiences to the courtroom. Certainly one of those common experiences is that motorists in the State of Iowa are required to and generally do carry insurance. Another of those common experiences is that when people are involved in a car accident, regardless of who is at fault, they frequently contact their insurance agent afterward. It is difficult to believe the admission of Sweers's statement altered the collective wisdom that this jury already had before trial commenced.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/03/insurancesweers-v-westfallslip-copy-2010-wl-786036-tableiowa-app2010.html

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