Trying to Make a Picture Worth a Thousand Words in Auto Cases
It is widely accepted that demonstrative evidence, such as photographs can make a larger impression on a jury than testimony. In essence, people respond to evidence that they can visualize. In litigation, it is the attorney’s task to provide context to the jury about what they are seeing and why it is important. In no type of case can photographs be more beneficial than in automobile accident cases. Plaintiff’s attorneys often offer photographs showing extensive property damage to vehicles involved in an accident. Alternatively, when the damage involved in an automobile accident is relatively minimal, defense attorneys routinely use vehicle photos to suggest to the jury that serious injuries could not have been caused by an accident involving such minimal property damage. As much as it is common practice in auto tort cases to offer photographs of vehicle damage, it is equally common that the movant will face an objection by the opposing party, who will argue that the photographs are prejudicial to their client. When an objection is made, it is then up to the trial judge to determine whether the photographs can be admitted.
While there is little doubt that photographs of vehicles are relevant in auto tort case, if for no other reason to assist the jury in visualizing the nature of the accident itself, there may be instances where the trial judge will determine that the photographs cause more prejudice to the opposing party than they offer in probative value. Several years ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals reaffirmed that whether photographs of vehicle damage should be admitted is left to the sound discretion of the trial judge. Mason v. Lynch, 388 Md. 37 (2005). In Mason, the Court upheld a trial court’s admission of vehicle photographs tending to show minimal damage, which the Plaintiff argued caused the jury to return a verdict of $0. In doing so, the Court of Appeals reiterated that such photographs have relevance and specifically rejected the notion that expert testimony proffering a correlation between the photographs and an injury (or lack thereof) was necessary. It concluded: “That there may be some automobile accidents, in which very minor impacts lead to serious personal injuries, and vice versa, does not mean that evidence concerning the impact is irrelevant to the extent of the injuries. Relevancy under [MD Rule 5-401] involves probabilities; complete certainty is not ordinarily required.”
Because the Court of Appeals in Mason specifically reaffirmed that vehicle damage photos are relevant and it upheld their admission, it is often forgotten that the Court’s ultimate holding was that the admission of photographs was within the sound discretion of the trial court, and will not be overturned unless there was an abuse of discretion. In fact, the Court made it a point to state that it will not only be very rare for an appellate court to reverse a trial court’s admission of photographs, but that it would also be rare to reverse a trial court’s refusal to admit photographs. Attorneys, then, should not take for granted that their photographs will be admitted by a trial court. In particular, in most State Court cases, the attorney will not know their trial judge until only days before the trial. Accordingly, if the attorney intends to make “no damage” photos an essential element of his/her argument, then it may benefit the attorney to utilize expert testimony. Read more