Hassett and Ober’s Appeals Court Win Featured in Lawyer’s Weekly

Negligence – Car accident – Voir dire

Appeals Court (Unpublished)

By: Tom Egan of Massachusetts Lawyer’s Weekly

January 18, 2017

Where, after the plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident, the jury found that the driver of the vehicle in which the plaintiff was a passenger was liable for her injuries, but the person driving the vehicle that collided with it was not, that judgment, as well as the denial of the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, should not be disturbed despite the plaintiff’s claims that (1) the judge’s limitation on attorney-conducted voir dire and certain of his evidentiary rulings were erroneous and (2) the verdict in favor of the other driver was against the weight of the evidence.

Affirmed.

“Before trial, both sides asked for, and were allowed, thirty minutes for attorney-conducted voir dire. There were no objections. After seven jurors were seated on the first day of empanelment, each side had only a few of their thirty 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 every potential juror with follow-up questions if necessary. The parties agreed, and they proceeded without objection on the next day of empanelment. In her motion for a new trial and on appeal, [plaintiff Anna] Cass argues that the judge unreasonably limited attorney-conducted voir dire. We disagree.

“ … Here, ‘[t]he acquiescence of defense counsel to actions taken by the trial judge … constitute[d] a waiver of any objection to the judge’s actions.’ … Cass 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. ‘[T]he trial judge properly exercised his discretion by conducting juror voir dire in the manner to which both counsel agreed, and because [Cass] has failed to demonstrate that the agreed upon procedure … constituted an abuse of discretion.’ … ‘[W]e discern no error and, accordingly, no substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.’ …

“Before trial, Cass moved in limine to exclude evidence that [defendant Courtney] Collins drank tequila on the night of the accident. The judge agreed with [defendant Robert] Dandridge that evidence of Collins’s alcohol consumption was relevant ‘in the context of reckless operation,’ and he denied the motion in limine. Cass argues that this ruling was erroneous.

“ … There was no abuse of discretion or error of law here, where ‘[e]vidence that [Collins] was consuming alcohol prior to driving with passengers late at night is patently relevant to whether [she] exercised reasonable care while driving.’ …

“Next, Cass argues error in the judge’s rejection of Collins’s attempt to stipulate ‘that her negligence was a substantial cause of this accident.’ Collins stipulated before trial that she was negligent and that her negligence was a cause of the accident. Upon questioning by the judge, Collins clarified her position that both she and Dandridge were substantial causes of the accident. The judge found that the stipulation was not knowingly and intelligently entered into by Collins ‘with a full understanding of the legal requirements to prove a case against her,’ and he rejected it.

“There was no error. ‘Parties may not stipulate to the legal conclusions to be reached by the [jury,]’ … and ‘[t]he judge was not … bound to accept as controlling [Collins’s] stipulation[] …, particularly where [it] is based on … an incorrect application of legal principles.’ … It is clear from the record that Collins did not appreciate the difference between stipulating that she was a ‘substantial cause’ of the accident as opposed to ‘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 Cass where Collins’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. ‘In our view, the judge was well within his authority to reject [Collins’s] highly problematic stipulation’ that her negligence was a substantial cause of the accident. …”

Cass v. Collins, et al. (Lawyers Weekly No. 81-055-17) (8 pages) (Appeals Court – Unpublished) (No. 15-P-1421) (Jan. 17, 2017).