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Medeiros v. Choy

Supreme Court of Hawaii

April 26, 2018

SAMANTHA THERESALYN MEDEIROS, Respondent/Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
BRADLEY KONG CHOY, Petitioner/Defendant-Appellee.

          CERTIORARI TO THE INTERMEDIATE COURT OF APPEALS (CAAP-13-0003500; CIV. NO. 11-1-2004-09)

          Thomas Tsuchiyama for petitioner

          Derek S. Nakamura for respondent

          McKENNA, POLLACK, AND WILSON, JJ., WITH NAKAYAMA, J., DISSENTING, WITH WHOM RECKTENWALD, C.J., JOINS

          OPINION

          POLLACK, J.

         In this case, which arises out of a 2007 car collision, the circuit court refused the plaintiff's request to instruct the jury that the plaintiff's motives in pursuing the suit were immaterial to the merits of the negligence claim. In closing argument, the defendant argued at length that the plaintiff had lied about being involved in the collision in order to commit worker's compensation fraud and secure an unwarranted payout. The jury found by special verdict that the defendant was not the legal cause of the plaintiff's injuries.

         On appeal, the Intermediate Court of Appeals (ICA) vacated the circuit court judgment, holding that the requested jury instruction should have been given under this court's prior precedent. We granted certiorari and further clarify the circumstances when a court is required to instruct the jury that it may not consider a plaintiff's motivation for pursuing a civil action.

         In applying these principles to this case, we hold that the plaintiff's motives for bringing suit were irrelevant to both the merits of her claim and her credibility as a witness. We further hold that, in light of the evidence adduced at trial, the jury should have been instructed as the plaintiff requested. Accordingly, we affirm the ICA decision and remand the case for a new trial to be conducted in a manner consistent with this opinion.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. Events Giving Rise to the Case

         On January 23, 2007, Bradley Choy rear-ended a vehicle driven by Bernard Jimenez while driving in heavy traffic near downtown Honolulu. The force of the collision pushed Jimenez's vehicle forward, causing it to impact the rear of a third vehicle driven by Jennilind Aggasid.

         Samantha Medeiros testified that she was helping Aggasid transport a patient named Mary Beth Chan to a doctor's appointment at the time of the collision.[1] Aggasid operated a care home out of her residence, and Medeiros, who worked as a nursing assistant for Nursefinders, [2] had been assigned to help Aggasid care for Chan. Medeiros stated that she was sitting directly behind Aggasid in the backseat when the accident took place. Medeiros related that when the impact occurred, she was turned to the right in order to speak with Chan, who was seated in the backseat on the passenger side.

         Following the collision, all three cars pulled into a nearby gas station. Medeiros testified that she then got out of the car and moved to the front seat to comfort Aggasid, who was badly disturbed by the event. Medeiros stated that, except for briefly examining the damage to the back of the car, she remained in the vehicle while waiting for the police to arrive and complete their accident report.

         In contrast, Choy testified that the frontmost car in the collision contained two women in the front seat--one elderly and one in her teens or twenties--and a small child in the backseat.[3] Choy was unable to identify Medeiros as one of the women present in the vehicle. He related that the child, whom he described as around four years old and in diapers, was visible walking back and forth on the backseat of the frontmost car after the vehicles pulled into the gas station. He further contended that the two women attempted to conceal that the child had not been properly restrained by retrieving a car seat from the vehicle's trunk and buckling the child into it before police arrived. Medeiros and Aggasid denied that any child or car seat was present in the vehicle.

         The police report on the accident specifies Aggasid as the driver of the front vehicle and states that the car contained three occupants. It does not provide names or descriptions of the other passengers. At trial, the police officer who responded to the accident, Officer Kirk Brown, gave a description of the occupants of Aggasid's vehicle. The officer testified that there were two women in the front seat, which he estimated to both be in their forties or older, and a juvenile or small adult in the backseat. He stated that one of the women may have been five or ten years younger than the other, but acknowledged his assessment of the occupants' age may not have been accurate, noting that he was "not an expert at that." Officer Brown also testified that he did not observe a car seat or a child in diapers in any of the vehicles.

         Medeiros testified that she began to experience pain in her lower back after the impact. The pain worsened over time, eventually leading to months of physical therapy and two surgeries. Medeiros was unable to work from January 24, 2007, to August 22, 2010. Because her injuries were determined to have arisen out of the course and scope of her employment, Medeiros was deemed eligible for worker's compensation. Upon reviewing her injuries, an independent examiner rated Medeiros at 25% impairment of the whole person. As a result, Medeiros received $153, 949.75 in medical bill reimbursements and $105, 356.62 in temporary and permanent disability benefits.

         B. Circuit Court Proceedings

         On September 7, 2011, Medeiros filed a complaint against Choy in the Circuit Court of the First Circuit (circuit court), alleging that Choy's negligence was the legal cause of her injuries and seeking general, special, and punitive damages.[4]Prior to trial, Choy stipulated that he had caused the accident and stated that only the "cause, nature and extent of any injuries" suffered by Medeiros were left to be determined.

         Based on the content of pretrial depositions, Medeiros filed a motion in limine seeking to preclude witnesses from testifying regarding the presence of an unrestrained child in Aggasid's vehicle or the retrieval and installation of a car seat from the vehicle's trunk following the accident. Medeiros argued that the child's presence did not bear on any contested issues and was likely to waste time and confuse the jury. She further asserted that it would cause her unfair prejudice because the jury was likely to have a strong, negative reaction to allegations that a child was put in danger by a violation of child safety laws. Choy responded that the testimony would reflect on whether Medeiros was actually involved in the accident, her location and position in the car when the accident occurred, and whether Medeiros was in the course and scope of her employment at the time of the accident and thus legitimately entitled to the worker's compensation benefits she received. The circuit court denied the motion, noting that it would evaluate relevance at trial in light of its understanding that "credibility is at issue always."

         At trial, Medeiros first elicited testimony regarding the presence of a child or car seat in Aggasid's vehicle on direct examination of Aggasid, who denied that either was present. Both parties questioned witnesses about the child and car seat throughout the rest of the trial without drawing any relevancy-based objections. Choy's wife testified that she had wanted to inform the police that the child was not restrained during the accident so that the occupants of the car "would be aware that they always need to put the child in the child restraint seat for the safety of the child." Choy testified that he stopped his wife from relaying the information to law enforcement because he believed the occupants had "learned a lesson."[5]

         Medeiros also submitted a proposed jury instruction based on this court's decision in Kobashigawa v. Silva, 129 Hawai'i 313, 300 P.3d 579 (2013), that would have informed the jury that the motives of a plaintiff in bringing a lawsuit are immaterial if the elements of a valid cause of action are otherwise established.[6] Medeiros proposed that the jury be instructed that it "may not consider the Plaintiff's motives in bringing the lawsuit. So far as the law is concerned, if the Plaintiff has made out a case on the facts, it is immaterial what her motive was."

         After the parties rested, the circuit court held an in-chambers hearing to settle jury instructions. Over Medeiros's objection, the court refused her request to instruct the jury that her motives in bringing the lawsuit were immaterial, although the court stated that it would reconsider Medeiros's request if Choy brought up the issue of motive during closing arguments.

         Prior to closing argument, the court gave instructions to the jury that did not include any mention of the immateriality of Medeiros's motives for pursuing the civil action. Choy then proceeded to make repeated reference in his closing argument to Medeiros's allegedly improper motives for bringing suit. Among many other references, Choy characterized the collision as "[o]bviously ... a non-event, not even a blip on the radar, " but argued that Medeiros had pursued litigation anyway because "there was money to be made and a lawsuit to be found--filed because this was a car accident and it wasn't her fault." Choy also questioned the timing of Medeiros's filing of a worker's compensation claim, arguing that it indicated she had fabricated the incident for monetary gain: "Did she suddenly remember six days after the accident that she was working when the accident occurred or did she make the whole thing up to qualify for workers compensation benefits?"[7] Choy speculated that the allegedly delayed claim might be explained by Medeiros's discovery that "there are monetary limits to no-fault insurance that you don't have with workers' compensation"--a statement for which no evidence was presented at trial. Choy then implied that Medeiros's lawsuit was an attempt to hold him responsible for reimbursing the payments she received through a false worker's compensation claim: "So if Mrs. Medeiros was not in the vehicle or not working at the time, then she arguably submitted a false workers compensation claim, and if so, Mr. Choy should not be held responsible for reimbursing that false claim." Choy also suggested that a verdict in Medeiros's favor would be something the jury would be ashamed of because it would serve to consummate her fraudulent scheme:

And when this case is over, each of you will be able to go home and talk about the case with your family and friends, and when you talk about the case, can you say you would be proud of a verdict of $1.2 million for this accident? Absolutely not. The only one who would be proud of such a verdict is the plaintiff because she would have accomplished exactly what she set out to accomplish the moment she informed Dr. Miscovich she was in a car accident and then convert it to a workers' compensation claim.

         Following closing arguments, the court provided the general concluding jury instructions, which again did not inform the jury that it could not consider Medeiros's motives for pursuing the lawsuit. The jury returned an eleven-to-one special verdict finding that Choy's negligence was not the legal cause of injury to Medeiros. Medeiros renewed a previously filed motion for judgment as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The circuit court denied the motion and entered judgment. Medeiros timely appealed.

         C. ICA Proceedings

         On appeal to the ICA, Medeiros argued that the circuit court had erred by admitting irrelevant and prejudicial testimony about an unrestrained child and car seat in Aggasid's vehicle and by refusing to give a jury instruction barring consideration of Medeiros's motivation for bringing the lawsuit.

         In a memorandum opinion, the ICA first considered the content of Medeiros's proposed jury instruction.[8] Referencing this court's Kobashigawa decision, the ICA held that the instruction was a correct statement of the law. The ICA further held that, taken in light of Choy's repeated allegations that Medeiros's lawsuit was brought as part of a scheme to commit worker's compensation fraud, the circuit court's failure to give the instruction was "prejudicially insufficient."

         The ICA then turned to the admissibility of testimony regarding the unrestrained child and the retrieval and installation of a car seat in the backseat of Aggasid's vehicle. The appellate court considered Medeiros's contention that the testimony was irrelevant under Hawaii Rules of Evidence (HRE) Rule 401 (1993) and HRE Rule 402 (1993). The ICA stated that the evidence of the unrestrained child and the car seat was being used to show alleged worker's compensation fraud and thus related to Medeiros's motives for bringing suit. The court explained that, under Kobashigawa, evidence of Medeiros's motives was inadmissible substantively or to impeach Medeiros's credibility as a witness. The ICA therefore held that the testimony was not relevant to disprove Medeiros and Chan's presence in the car at the time of the accident in order to undermine Medeiros's worker's compensation claim.

         The ICA also held, however, that the testimony did have a tendency to prove or disprove Medeiros's position within the car at the time of the accident. This was relevant to the issue of causation, the ICA concluded, because expert testimony had indicated that the location and direction of Medeiros's body affected her likelihood of injury from the impact.

         Notwithstanding the relevance of the evidence under HRE Rule 401, the ICA held that the circuit court had abused its discretion by admitting the testimony because, under HRE Rule 403 (1980), its probative value was substantially outweighed by its potential to confuse the jury and incite unfair prejudice against Medeiros. The court reasoned that the existence of a child and the installation of a car seat in the backseat of Aggasid's vehicle had only a minimal bearing on Medeiros's position in the vehicle at the time of the impact. In contrast, the ICA stated, the testimony was very likely to confuse the jury and cause Medeiros unfair prejudice because Choy repeatedly referenced it in conjunction with Medeiros's alleged motive of committing worker's compensation fraud, which the ICA had held inadmissible.

         Based on these rulings, the ICA vacated the circuit court's judgment and the order denying Medeiros's motion for judgment as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, for a ...


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