This appeal arises from a December 24, 2010 motor vehicle accident involving a vehicle driven by Johnny Miller and another vehicle driven by Mr. Moretz. The cause of the accident was hotly contested with both parties claiming the other to be at fault. As for damages, Mr. Miller and his wife, who was a passenger in the vehicle, claimed they sustained soft tissue injuries. The jury returned a verdict finding Mr. Moretz to be 10% at fault and Mr. Miller 90% at fault. As to Mrs. Miller, the jury found zero damages. On appeal, the Millers took issue with a ruling regarding Mr. Moretz’s prescription drug use on the day of the accident and the trial court’s failure to grant an additur or a new trial on damages as to Mrs. Miller.
Mr. Moretz’s Prescription Drug Use on the Day of the Accident.
During discovery, the Millers served interrogatories on Mr. Moretz. One interrogatory asked whether Mr. Moretz had consumed any alcohol or drugs in the twelve hours prior to the accident. Mr. Moretz denied doing so. Under oath in his deposition and for a second time, Mr. Moretz denied drug use on the day of the accident. Prior to trial, Mr. Moretz moved in limine to prohibit the plaintiffs from introducing any evidence he had taken oxycodone on the day of the accident. Mr. Moretz’s offered that his personal physician had told him he could drive while taking the medication and he provided a letter for his employer to that effect. In support of the motion in limine, Mr. Moretz argued that mere use was insufficient and impairment had to be demonstrated for the prescription drug use to be relevant.
Mr. Moretz pointed out that there was no allegation in the original or re-filed complaint that he was impaired at the time of the accident. None of the witnesses who were at the scene or observed the accident testified Mr. Moretz appeared to be impaired. And to the extent that evidence of his drug use was relevant, Mr. Moretz contended it was unduly prejudicial under Rule 403 of the Tennessee Rules of Evidence. Conversely, the Millers argued it was a prior inconsistent statement and could be used to impeach Mr. Moretz’s credibility. Using the jury instruction on the credibility of witnesses, the Millers wanted to argue to the jury that they could disregard Mr. Moretz’s account of the accident if they found him untruthful on the issue of drug use. Ultimately, the trial court agreed with Mr. Moretz and ruled that evidence of his drug use was inadmissible as unduly prejudicial.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the exclusion of the drug use finding it significant that there was no evidence that Mr. Moretz was driving erratically or that the prescription drug use played any role in the accident and noting its highly prejudicial nature given the “general contempt for drug use”. Moreover, the Court of Appeals concluded even if the trial court’s ruling was incorrect, the error would have been harmless as other witnesses testified consistent with Mr. Moretz’s version of events and the physical evidence supported his account of the accident. As such, its value as an inconsistent statement was minimal.
New Trial or Additur for Mrs. Miller’s Damages
At the time of the accident, Mrs. Miller was 73 years old and she regularly sought the services of a chiropractor. Following the accident, she claimed her pains increased in severity and so she continued to see her chiropractor for three more months. In terms of limitations, Mrs. Miller testified she was unable to do yard work, had difficulty running the vacuum and standing for long periods of time. She also reported a lack of energy and desire to do regular activities. On direct exam, Mrs. Miller’s chiropractor testified the car accident had caused Mrs. Miller’s back problems to worsen and she would need future medical treatment consisting of at least one visit per month. On cross-examination, the chiropractor testified Mrs. Miller had suffered a fall three months before the car accident and was restricted in standing, sitting and walking. In addition, when Mrs. Miller presented to him for her first visit following the accident, she did not mention the accident when completing the chiropractor’s intake form which asked for any new history or symptoms.
The Court of Appeals noted the amount of damages to be awarded is primarily left to the jury and appellate courts should not substitute their judgment. Since there was material evidence supporting the jury’s findings, the verdict was approved.
The Millers’ reaction to shout “Liar, Liar” from the rooftop, or at least from counsel table, is understandable. They had him. They had caught their adversary in a lie — not once, but twice. To be denied the opportunity to exploit it seems wrong. But, in the end, we want verdicts to be based on relevant facts. And so sometimes, that means we have to swallow a jagged, bitter pill handed to us by the trial judge.
If you should happen to find yourself in a similar situation, might I suggest an end-of-the-day Old Fashioned to help wash it down. And remember the good ole’ "abuse of discretion" rule: win your evidence battles in the courtroom – you are not likely to win them at the Court of Appeals.
The case: Miller v. Moretz, No. E2013-01893-COA-R3 CV (Tenn Ct. App. July 7, 2014).