Friday, February 25, 2011

Punitive Evidence Admissible Even When No Claim for Punitive Damages?

Evidence for Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania was at it issue in an interesting decision rendered by the Superior Court in the appeal of Knowles v. Estate of Levan. You can read the complete opinion here.

This was a car crash case where Regina Levan, under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, lost control of her vehicle, swerved into oncoming traffic and hit, head on, the Knowles. Levan was killed in the crash. Mr. Knowles suffered a compound fracture in his leg and Mrs. Knowles, suffered a lacerated liver.

At trial, the Estate admitted liability. The Knowles’ did not make a claim for punitive damages. As a result, the Estate filed a pre-trial motion to preclude evidence of Ms. Levan’s intoxication. The idea being- what relevance would her intoxication have if liability was already admitted? Counsel for the Estate was wise to do this because even when punitive damages are not being claimed, juries will find a way to work them into their verdict if they want to punish the defendant.

The trial court summarily shut down the Estate’s request and forced the estate to divulge both Levan’s blood alcohol level as well as the legal limit in Pennsylvania. The case was then tried on damages only with all of this evidence being brought to the jury’s attention. The jury returned a verdict of $254,000, which, in my opinion, is pretty high sans a claim for punitive damages.

The Estate obviously felt the same way because the appealed complaining that the trial court erred by admitting the evidence of alcohol and narcotic intoxication in case in which liability had been admitted.

The Superior Court had an interesting way of handling the appeal. They noted first that the admission of evidence of Levan’s intoxication and requirement of the Pa legal limit be disclosed to the jury was improper. The Superior Court pointed to the holding in Warburton v. Eister, 37 Pa. D&C 3d. 385 (1985) that stated, in part, “To allow evidence that it was defendant’s fault because he was drunk adds nothing to the issue of how much plaintiff was injured. Such evidence may in fact only raise a new issue in the jury’s mind; how muchshould defendant be punished for his drunk driving.” The Court also pointed to Kuehn v. Morgan, 62 Pa. D&C 4th 509, 513 (Lehigh County 2002)- that stated that while intoxication is relevant to punitive damages, defendant’s consumption of alcohol is not relevant or admissible to prove defendant’s negligence because defendant has conceded that point.

BUT! The Superior Court affirmed concluding that any error was harmless error as it did not affect the verdict. Basically, the Superior Court felt that the injuries at issue were such that a verdict of $250,000 was not outrageously large. The Court also noted that the trial court had given a cautionary instruction about the inflammatory evidence.

I think the Superior Court was right in finding that $250K was not an outrageous sum under the circumstances. But I think this puts the Superior Court somewhat in the position of damage fact finder when really they are constrained to base their decisions on the law. Because you have to wonder what number would have been too high such that the improper evidence ruling was not so harmless. Where do they draw the line?

Thought Plaintiffs are always seeking to get every punitive type piece of evidence into a trial anyway…this decision only reinforces that practice. Because now we know that if we can persuade the trial court to allow our questionable evidence in, there is a good chance the Superior Court will not overturn. And being reversed seems to be a trial judge’s biggest consideration in rendering such decisions in the first place.

Check out my other articles on Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania here and here. Share this post :
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