Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Ruling for Defendants Following Worcester Car Accident

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently affirmed a jury’s ruling against a plaintiff following a Worcester car accident. Just after midnight in April 2013, a defendant was driving westbound on Route 20. He was in the left-hand westbound lane, going slower than the speed limit. As far as he could see, he was the only car on the road. He had a green light as he proceeded through the intersection of Route 20 and Greenwood Street.Meanwhile, the plaintiff, another defendant, and another woman had been visiting a friend. The plaintiff drank some tequila during the visit. A few minutes past midnight, the girls got into the other defendant’s Honda Civic to go to McDonald’s. The other defendant was driving, and the plaintiff was seated in the passenger seat behind her. They headed toward Route 20. The westbound driver on Route 20 hit the Civic when it crossed in front of him. The Civic spun around, and the plaintiff was ejected, suffering serious and permanent injuries as a result.

She brought suit against the defendants, alleging that their negligent operation was the proximate cause of her injuries. After a three-week trial, the jury found the westbound driver not negligent. The jury found that the other defendant’s negligence was a substantial cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, and judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiff. A separate judgment was entered, dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint against the westbound driver. The plaintiff moved pursuant to Massachusetts Civil Rule 59(a) for a new trial, arguing that several of the judge’s evidentiary rulings were erroneous and that the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The motion was denied by the trial judge. She appealed from that order and the two judgments.

The plaintiff first argued that the judge unreasonably limited attorney-conducted voir dire. Before trial, both sides asked for 30 minutes for attorney-conducted voir dire. After seven jurors were seated on the first day of empanelment, each side had only a few of their 30 minutes remaining. Instead of confining the attorneys to those few minutes for the entire next day of empanelment, the judge stated that he would allow each party to ask one question of each potential juror, with follow-up questions if necessary. The parties agreed, and they proceeded without objection on the next day of empanelment.

In rejecting the plaintiff’s argument, the appeals court first explained that the scope of voir dire is in the trial judge’s discretion and will be upheld absent a clear showing of abuse of that discretion. Here, the plaintiff suffered no prejudice from the judge’s limits because she often was allowed to ask as many as five or six questions of potential jurors. The trial judge properly exercised his discretion by conducting juror voir dire in the manner to which both attorneys agreed. Since the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the agreed-upon procedure constituted an abuse of discretion, the appeals court found no error and accordingly no substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.

Next, the plaintiff argued the judge erred in rejecting the defendant’s attempt to stipulate that her negligence was a substantial cause of the accident. Before trial, the plaintiff moved in limine to exclude evidence that the defendant drank tequila on the night of the accident. The judge agreed with the westbound driver that evidence of the defendant’s alcohol consumption was relevant in the context of reckless operation, and he denied the motion in limine. The plaintiff argued that this ruling was erroneous.

The defendant stipulated before trial that she was negligent and that her negligence was a cause of the accident. Upon questioning by the judge, the defendant clarified her position that both she and the westbound driver were substantial causes of the accident. The judge found that the stipulation was not knowingly and intelligently entered into by the defendant with a full understanding of the legal requirements to prove a case against her, and he rejected it.

The appeals court found no error, reasoning that parties may not stipulate to the legal conclusions to be reached by the jury, and the judge was not bound to accept as controlling the defendant’s stipulation, particularly since it was based on an incorrect application of legal principles.

It was clear from the record, the appeals court found, that the defendant did not appreciate the difference between stipulating that she was “a substantial cause” of the accident or stipulating that she was “a cause,” and the judge correctly sent that question to the jury. The judge decided to admit the stipulation after the close of evidence. There was no prejudice to the plaintiff because the defendant’s stipulation was admitted, the judge gave instructions on substantial cause, and the jury found that her negligence was a substantial cause of the accident. The judge was well within his authority, the appeals court concluded, to reject the defendant’s highly problematic stipulation that her negligence was a substantial cause of the accident.

After swiftly rejecting the plaintiff’s remaining claims, the court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

If you have been hurt because of someone else’s negligence, you may need the assistance of a car accident lawyer to seek compensation. At the Neumann Law Group, our Massachusetts attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to victims all over the state. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.

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