NJ Appeals Court Finds Improper Admission of Evidence of Prior Bad Driving
On December 8, 2015, in an unpublished decision, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a jury verdict of no cause in a motor vehicle accident case, holding that the trial judge improperly admitted evidence regarding other motor vehicle accidents involving settling co-defendant.
In Gonzalez-Caceres v. Murray, Docket No. A-5893-13T4 (N.J. App. Div. Dec. 8, 2015), the accident occured on Route 78 in Somerville on the evening of March 26, 2010. The plaintiff, Angela Gonzalez-Caceres, was a passenger in a Toyota Highlander being driven by co-defendant, Adolfo Corrales. The plaintiff alleged that she was awoken when the Highlander was struck by a tractor-trailer driven by co-defendant, Kenneth Murray of Murray’s Trucking, Inc. The plaintiff filed her Law Division complaint on February 1, 2012, alleging that Corrales and Murray negligently operated their vehicles, causing her to sustain severe and permanent injuries.
Immediately prior to trial, the plaintiff entered into a settlement with Corrales. The plaintiff then called Corrales as a witness at her ensuing trial against Murray and his company. During cross-examination, defense counsel asked Corrales about a number of other motor vehicle accidents he had been involved in to establish that Corrales was not a good driver. During his summation, defense counsel commented on the other accidents Corrales was involved in. Twice counsel stated that Corrales “is not a good driver.” In contrast, counsel described Murray as “a very good driver.”
The jury returned a verdict that plaintiff did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Murray was negligent. The plaintiff subsequently moved for a new trial, arguing that the court’s ruling allowing Corrales to be questioned about his driving record “was improper and extremely prejudicial especially when coupled with [d]efendant’s summation.” This motion was denied, and the plaintiff appealed.
The Appellate Division reversed, “conclud[ing] that admission of the evidence of Corrales’s other accidents to show that he was a bad driver, and, implicitly, at fault in the accident at issue in this case, was erroneous.” Slip Op. at 12. The Appellate Division explained:
The only issue for which habit evidence arguably could have been relevant in this case was whether Corrales had a specific, routine practice of carelessly cutting in front of tractortrailer trucks. Here, defendant’s proofs failed to demonstrate, with specificity, that Corrales engaged in such habitual conduct. . . .
Here, we cannot conclude that admission of the evidence was harmless. Whether Murray operated his vehicle negligently largely depended on whether the jury found his version of events more credible than Corrales’s account. The court’s error was magnified during defense counsel’s summation, when he highlighted Corrales’s involvement in other accidents and portrayed Murray as “a very good driver” and Corrales as “not a good driver.” As a consequence, we determine that the evidence was improperly admitted and, in light of the jury’s verdict, that its admission likely prejudiced plaintiff.
Slip Op. at 13-14.