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Court of Special Appeals Tackles Evidentiary Issues Associated with “Road Rage”

“All of Civility depends on being able to contain the rage of individuals.”

               Joshua Lederberg, Scientist (1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology)

The term “road rage” has become such a part of the American lexicon that it has sparked spinoff words, such as “air rage.”  The extent to which such a phenomenon exists as a psychological or sociological concept is open for debate, but regardless, when someone behind the wheel of a car loses his or her cool in a very profound way, bad things can happen.

In 2005, Marjorie Hendrix and Charles Burns were involved in what, at first glance, was a fairly common type of automobile accidnt:  Ms. Hendrix, proceeding through an intersection with a green light, was struck by a vehicle driven by Mr. Burns, which had been traveling in a perpendicular direction and traveled through a red light.  The plot thickens when it is discovered that Mr. Burns was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the occurrence and had a history of substance abuse, a criminal record, and driving violations.  It also turns out that the reason that Mr. Burns drove through the red light was attributed to being in a fit of “road rage” that developed from an earlier incidend with another driver, whom he was apparently pursuing at the time of the accident.  Ms. Hendrix file a lawsuit alleging negligence and battery against Mr. Burns and alleging negligent entrustment against Burns’ wife, who was the owner of the vehicle.

Prior to trial, the court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Burns on the battery charge, finding that there was no intent by Mr. Burns to strike Ms. Hendrix’s vehicle, which was a required element of battery.  With the battery count out of the way, Burns’ defense team made a very wise decision:  Mr. and Mrs. Burns admitted liability on the negligence counts, then moved the Court in limine to exclude Ms. Hendrix from presenting any evidence of Mr. Burns’ intoxication, his “road rage” incident, his attempt to flee the scene, or his prior unflattering history.  Had the jury been permitted to hear this evidence, despite liability already having been established, it would have created the possibility that the jury’s award be less of an effort to fairly compensate Ms. Hendrix and more of an effort to penalize Mr. Burns.  The Court agreed and precluded the testimony.

The result was a damages-only trial, where the evidence heard by the jury related only to the issue of the nature and extent of Ms. Hendrix’ injuries.  It should be noted, though, that the plaintiff was permitted to present testimony regarding the happening of the accident itself, such as testimony relating to the speeds of the vehicles and the impact involved.  The jury awarded Ms. Hendrix $85,000.00, which did not meet her expectations, so she appealed the verdict, arguing that the Court’s summary judgment as to the battery claim was erroneous and its subsequent exclusions of the unflattering evidence toward Mr. Burns was an abuse of discretion.  The Maryland Court of Special Appeals saw through this argument, and it recently affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Regarding the batter claim, Hendrix argued that even if there was no evidence that Burns wanted to harm her or strike her vehicle, there was evidence that he wanted to harm another person and strike their vehicle.  Therefore, under the doctrine of “transferred intent,” there was sufficient evidence for the battery claim to move forward.  Both the trial and appellate courts disagreed.  The Court of Special Appeals, held that Burns’ behavior in driving through the intersection could be categorized as reckless, but there was no evidence that he intended to strike another vehicle.  Turning to the plaintiff’s “transferred intent” claim, the Court noted that no reported Maryland case existed that discussed the issue of whether the doctrine of transferred intent should be applied to civil cases for intentional torts.  Relying on other jurisdictions and prevailing legal authority, the Court held that transferred intent can be applied in intentional tort cases, just as in criminal cases.  However, in the present case, Hendrix did not establish facts sufficient to support a theory of transferred intent because there was no evidence that Burns intended to cause physical harm to the other driver with whom he had been involved in the earlier altercation.  Evidence of Burns’ anger alone was not sufficient to create factual inference that he intended to harm the other driver.

Turning to the motions in limine that excluded evidence relating to Burns’ less-than-stellar actions, the trial court based its decision on the fact that the evidence in question (Burns’ criminal and driving history, his “road rage” behavior, his intoxication, and his attempt to flee the scene) had no bearing on the issue of the plaintiff’s damages and would serve only as immflamatory and prejudicial evidence against Burns.  The Appeals Court identified the issue as one of relevance, i.e., was the proffered evidence relevant and, if so, was the proabative value of the evidence outweighed y the prejudicial effect that it would have?  The most prominent argument asserted by Hendrix was that she had an pre-existing fear of being struck by a drunk driver due to her years as a 9-1-1 operator and, upon learning that Burns had been under the influence at the time of the accident, it added to her emotional distress.  Accordingly, she argued that his intoxication was relevant to her damages claim.  The Court rejected this contention as well, stating:

In the case at bar, Mrs. Hendrix’s after-acquired knowledge about Mr. Burns was collateral to the injuries she sustained in the accident.  The breach of duty by Mr. Burns in failing to stop for the red light and hitting Mrs. Hendrix’s vehicle began and ended when the collision happened.  At that point, the damage had been done.  It made no legal difference whether Mrs. Hendrix later discovered that the tortfeasor was a repeat drunk driver or Mother Teresa – her damages, including the emotional distress damages attendant to the injuries she suffered in the accident, would be the same.

Accordingly, because the Court found that the proffered evidence was not relevent, it held that the trial court was legally correct to exclude the evidence.  This is significant because, normally, a trial court’s evidentiary rulings are judged on an “abuse of discretion” standard.  In this case however, the Appeals Court determined that the evidence was no relevant as a matter of law and, therefore, not only was it within the trial court’s discretion to preclude the evidence, but it would have been error if it had not excluded the evidence.

The ruling of the trial court and, more recently, the Court of Special Appeals, are unquestionably correct.  With liability conceded, the only relevant issue was Ms. Hendrix’s damages.  Whether or not Mr. Burns, was in a fit of road rage and/or drunk had no effect on damages.  Certainly, his efforts to leave the scene were also unrelated to the injuries she sustained.  A full reading of the court’s opinion demonstrates that the plaintiff in this case attempted through as many channels as possible to prejudice the Burnses with the jury and hope that, in turn, the jury would be more likely to give a larger damages award.  I am not criticizing the plaintiff’s attorney – the issues were fair game and he was entitled to advocate these positions for his clients.  However, in this case, the courts made the logical and correct ruling – that the jury only needed to know information relating to the damages that the Plaintiff sustained.  The jury’s verdict, whether it was higher or lower than expected, is an accurate reflection of their opinion of Ms. Hendrix’s damages.

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