Where Liability is Admitted, Evidence of Mental Anguish and Poverty May Be Irrelevant and Inadmissible
In a personal injury action, can issues of mental anguish and financial hardship be raised in most cases? Usually not. However, crafty attorneys sometimes argue that plaintiffs suffered mental anguish because the defendant left the scene, tried to leave the scene, or never apologized. Many times when this type of evidence is attempted to be presented, the defense attorneys properly object, which gives them one more reason to seek reversal during an appeal.
The tactic seems to be an attempt to elicit sympathy testimony by the plaintiff of mental anguish associated with a defendant never apologizing. In a situation in which the defense admits liability, it is reversible error to allow such testimony. Even if the defendant doesn’t admit negligence until the eve of trial, none of that testimony should be allowed in.
A great example of these theories is found in the recent Florida 4th District Court of Appeal decision of Hurtado v. Escobar. Therein, defense counsel admitted liability on the eve of trial. Plaintiff’s counsel successfully introduced his client’s testimony about the mental anguish suffered as a result of defendant’s claimed comments wanting to leave the scene and his failure to apologize. A $1,000,000 damage verdict was thrown out as a result of these comments. The purpose of damages is to compensate, not to make the defendant care, take responsibility, or say he was sorry. Intermittent Inc. V. Guider, 93 So.3d 503 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).
Financial hardship testimony is also sometimes improper. No reference should be made to the wealth or poverty of a party, nor should the financial status of one party be contrasted with the other’s. Eliciting testimony that the plaintiff lost his home in foreclosure and was unable to seek medical treatment because there was no health insurance ran afoul of the general prohibition against injecting a party’s poverty or financial status into the trial.
The Hurtado opinion goes out of its way to comment multiple times that the $1,000,000 verdict was in a “minor auto collision” which seemed to shock the conscience of the court, given the type of collision perceived by the appellate court.
On a side issue, this opinion also establishes that unemployment compensation benefits are not collateral sources for purposes of set off under Florida Statute 768.76. Another helpful case to have in your trial notebook.
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