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Recent Appellate Division Opinion Regarding Guidance on Admissibility of Evidence at Trial and Trial Tactics

The Appellate Division on September 12, 2019 rendered an unpublished Opinion on several trial-related issues.  The matter is Gomez v. Fritsche, 2019 WL 4313116.

This matter arose from a motor vehicle accident.  The jury found Defendant 100% negligent for causing an intersectional accident, and awarded Plaintiff the sum of $115,000.00.  Defendant appealed the denial of her Motion for a New Trial, arguing that the cumulative prejudice from several errors – specifically, the Trial Court barring evidence that Plaintiff had previously sustained permanent injuries; allowing the investigating police officer to opine as to fault for the accident; barring defense counsel from objecting during Plaintiff’s counsel’s closing; and Plaintiff’s counsel’s improper remarks during summation, deprived Defendant of a fair trial.  The Appellate Division agreed, in part, vacated the verdict, and remanded for a new trial.

As to the issue of evidence of Plaintiff’s previous permanent injuries, there was evidence that Plaintiff had been involved in prior motor vehicle accidents in 1994 and 2000.  A doctor had written in a report that Plaintiff suffered permanent injuries to her neck and back which would result in ongoing pain and limitation regarding both body parts.  The Trial Court granted a Motion in limine filed by Plaintiff to preclude defense counsel from raising the same, finding that the probative value of this evidence was outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice.  The Trial Court indicated that defense counsel would not be allowed to utilize this evidence even if Plaintiff testified that she never had any prior problems with her neck or back.

As to the issue of the police officer, the officer was allowed to read his conclusion in the police report to the effect that Defendant failed to yield to Plaintiff and was inattentive in not ensuring that the roadway was clear prior to entering the same.

During summation, Plaintiff’s counsel referenced the fact that while Defendant had testified, the Defendant thereafter left and was not present in Court during the closing.  Defense counsel objected, but the Trial Judge advised that “I should’ve mentioned this earlier, there’s no objections in closing argument.  Now that you’ve done it, I suggest it’s… closing argument.  He’s entitled to argue and if he wants to put that inference out there and draw an inference it’s fair game.  I don’t know why she’s here, she’s not here, but you know, I don’t understand the objection and it’s overruled.”

Thereafter, defense counsel apparently heeded the Trial Judge’s admonition not to object during Plaintiff’s closing statement, even when Plaintiff’s counsel then specifically invited the jurors to place themselves in Plaintiff’s situation.

The Appellate Division began by noting that as a general matter, trial courts have considerable discretion in determining whether evidence is relevant, and, if so, whether it should be excluded under N.J.R.E. 403 due to the fact that the probative value of the evidence is substantially outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice, confusion of issues or misleading the jury.  Wymbs v. Twp of Wayne, 163 N.J. 523, 537 (2000).

In this regard, the Appellate Division observed that the prior reports were as a threshold matter hearsay, inadmissible except as provided in N.J.R.E. 802.  Pursuant to Skibinski v. Smith, 206 N.J. Super. 349, 353 (App. Div. 1985), expert reports are not statements of a party and therefore cannot be treated as an admission simply because they have been furnished in discovery by that party.

The Appellate Division noted that the defense did not intend to call as a witness the doctor who wrote the old report. Accordingly, it held that given the foregoing, the Trial Court acted within its broad discretion in prohibiting Defendant from utilizing the same.

However, regarding the Trial Court’s ruling permitting the police officer to render his opinion regarding the fault for the accident, the Appellate Division found otherwise.

While police reports are admissible as a business record and as a public record, if properly authenticated, if a proponent seeks to admit the report or an officer’s trial testimony regarding the same to prove the truth of something contained therein, a separate hearsay exception is required.

Significantly, New Jersey courts have prohibited the admission of police testimony as to the issue of fault.  Indeed, for a party to present a police officer as an expert, that officer must be properly qualified as an expert pursuant to N.J.R.E. 702.

Generally, police officers can present lay opinion testimony, but the same “is limited to what was directly perceived by the witness and may not rest on otherwise inadmissible hearsay.” State v. McLean, 205 N.J. 438, 460 (2011).  Thus, an officer is not permitted to provide opinion testimony at trial when that opinion is based primarily on the statements of others.  Neno v. Clinton, 167 N.J. 573, 585 (2001).

While Plaintiff argued that the officer never use the word “fault,” the Appellate Division indicated that the testimony as a whole made clear that in the opinion of the officer the Defendant was at fault at the time of the accident.

Indeed, Plaintiff’s counsel then “compounded the error” by emphasizing the same during his closing, telling the jury that the Defendant did not want to jurors to hear the police officer’s testimony.

Finally, turning to the issues regarding Plaintiff’s counsel’s closing argument, the Appellate Division cited State v. Farrell, 61 N.J. 99, 106 (1972) and State v. Bauman, 298 N.J. Super. 176, 207 (App. Div. 1997) for the proposition that challenging an adversary’s improper closing remarks after the closing, rather than during it, fails to timely alert the Court to the irregularities and provide the court with an opportunity to address and cure the same.

To the contrary, a party is precluded from claiming that it was harmed absent timely objection during the closing argument.  Farrell, 61 N.J. at 106.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that Trial Judges should not admonish counsel against making “appropriate” contemporaneous objections, expressing confidence that the bench can in appropriate circumstances promptly deal with any abusive conduct arising from the ability to object during an adversary’s closing.

Finally, the Appellate Division turned to consideration of specific remarks made by Plaintiff’s counsel during summation.  First, that regarding the Defendant not returning to the courtroom after testifying because Defendant – unlike Plaintiff – did not want to “see the case through.”  Second, the invitation for the jurors to place themselves in Plaintiff’s situation as to why jurors would or would not choose to undergo an epidural injection.  And third, the suggestion that defense counsel did not want the jury to hear the police officer’s conclusion about the accident.

Counsel are generally allowed significant latitude in closing arguments.  Bender v. Adelson, 187 N.J. 411, 431 (2006).  However, arguments may not include unfair and prejudicial appeals to emotion.  Jackowitz v. Lang, 408 N.J. Super. 495, 504-505 (App. Div. 2009).  Further, closing arguments must be based in truth and “counsel may not misstate the evidence nor distort the factual picture.”  Condella v. Cumberland Farms, Inc., 298 N.J. Super. 531, 534 (Law Div. 1996).  Indeed, in Rodd v. Raritan Radiologic Assocs., P.A., 373 N.J. Super. 154, 171 (App. Div. 2004), the Court made clear that counsel may not disparage opposing counsel, or a witness, or suggest an intent to deceive the jury or deliberately distort the evidence.

Indeed, Botta v. Brunner, 26 N.J. 82, 94 (1958) even describes the prohibition against asking jurors what they would expect to receive if they were in a similar position to Plaintiff as the “Golden Rule.”

Accordingly, the Appellate Division found that while these issues may have been capable of being cured had a timely objection been made, since the Trial Judge had banned objections, this was impossible.

Significantly, the Appellate Division noted that the cumulative effect of small errors may collectively be so great as to warrant a new trial.  Pellicer ex rel Pellicer v. St. Barnabas Hospital, 200 N.J. 22, 53 (2009).  With the possible exception of the police officer’s improper opinion testimony, none of the issues addressed above would have warranted a new trial on their own. However, cumulatively, they did.  Accordingly, the Order of Judgment was vacated and the matter remanded for a new trial.

Thus, this Opinion is an instructive reminder from the Appellate Division on several key issues, including when evidence of prior injuries may be admissible, and how; the limits to which a police officer will generally be permitted to testify; and the proper process to be followed by both parties during closing arguments at trial.

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Important Appellate Division Reported Opinion Regarding Disclosure of Investigatory Materials Under The Work Product Doctrine

The Appellate Division on June 6, 2019 rendered a reported Opinion on the issue of when disclosure of materials prepared or collected prior to the institution of litigation is required.  The matter is Paladino v. Auletto Enterprises, Inc. t/a Auletto Caterers, 2019 WL 2375475.

On October 9, 2015, Plaintiff was a guest at a wedding reception held at Defendant’s catering facility when she fell and injured her left knee, lower back, and right ankle while walking down a staircase.  She immediately reported the accident to Defendant, such that Defendant prepared an accident report that same day, and shortly thereafter gave notice to its insurance company. The insurance company promptly retained an investigator.

Two weeks after the accident, on October 22, 2015, a senior claims examiner spoke with Plaintiff, and sent Plaintiff a letter advising that an investigator was looking into the accident. The investigator was instructed to photograph the accident scene and obtain statements from both Plaintiff and representatives of Defendant.

The claims examiner later certified that the intent in retaining the investigator was to “prepare a defense for [Defendant] in the event that [Plaintiff] filed a lawsuit,” and further certified that as the insurer was not disputing coverage, it did not hire the investigator to look into coverage issues.

The investigator arranged to meet with and take a recorded statement from Plaintiff on October 26, 2015. However, on the appointment date, the investigator was contacted by an attorney who advised that he had been retained by Plaintiff, such that the appointment was canceled. The next day, Plaintiff’s recently retained counsel sent a letter of representation to the insurance carrier.

Therefore, on October 26, 2015, the investigator inspected Defendant’s catering facility.  In the process, the investigator took photographs of the scene and prepared a diagram of the area.  The investigator also obtained recorded oral statements from two of Defendant’s employees, and approximately one week later also obtained a recorded oral statement from a third employee.

On December 3, 2015, Plaintiff’s counsel and a photographer visited Defendant’s premises for a documentary inspection. Thereafter, in January 2016, Defendant’s insurance carrier provided Plaintiff’s counsel with a copy of video surveillance that had actually captured Plaintiff falling on the staircase, as well as a copy of the incident report.

Plaintiff and her husband subsequently filed suit and Defendant filed an Answer.  Thereafter, in Answers to Interrogatories, Defendant disclosed that the investigator had taken photographs of the staircase, had prepared a diagram, and had obtained recorded statements from three of Defendant’s employees, none of whom witnessed Plaintiff’s fall. Significantly, asserting that they were protected by the work-product privilege, Defendant did not produce the photographs, diagram, or statements,

Plaintiff filed a Motion to Compel the production of the photographs and the recorded statements by Defendant’s employees, having withdrawn a prior request for the diagram prepared by the investigator,

Without hearing oral argument, the Trial Court granted Plaintiff’s Motion, relying on Pfender v. Torres, 336 N.J. Super. 379 (App. Div. 2001), on the grounds that because the photographs and statements were obtained by the insurance carrier before litigation, the carrier “may have” had interests apart from protecting its insured’s rights.  Defendant sought leave to appeal the Order compelling the production. The Appellate Division initially denied leave, but the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal and remanded the same to the Appellate Division “to consider [it] on the merits.”

In the appeal, Defendant made two arguments. First, it contended that the Court should reject the rationale of Pfender and, instead, adopt the reasoning set forth in Medford v. Duggan, 323 N.J. Super. 127 (App. Div. 1999). Second, Defendant- applying the standard set forth in Medford– urged that the Appellate Division should reverse because Plaintiff did not satisfy the requirements of Rule 4:10-2(c).

 The Court began by noting that the Work Product Doctrine and Rule 4:10-2(c) should be understood as exceptions to New Jersey’s general policy of “encouraging full and open discovery of all relevant information.” 2019 WL 2375475 at Page 2.  In most situations, parties to litigation have the right to discovery of all relevant information concerning the action. See Rule 4:10-2(a).

One of the recognized privileges that is an exception to that general policy is the Work Product Doctrine. See O’Boyle v. Borough of Longport, 218 N.J. 168, 188 (2014). That doctrine was first recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Hickman v. Taylor, 329 U.S. 495 (1947).

 The Work Product Doctrine is set forth in Rule 4:10-2(c), which states:

“[A] party may obtain discovery of documents, electronically stored information, and tangible things otherwise discoverable under R[ule] 4:10-2(a) and prepared in anticipation of litigation or for trial by or for another party or by or for that other party’s representative (including an attorney, consultant, surety, indemnitor, insurer or agent) only upon a showing that the party seeking discovery has substantial need of the materials in the preparation of the case and is unable without undue hardship to obtain the substantial equivalent of the materials by other means. In ordering discovery of such materials when the required showing has been made, the court shall protect against disclosure of the mental impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal theories of an attorney or other representative of a party concerning the litigation.” (Emphasis added.)

Defendant argued that a conflict exists in precedent concerning the scope of the Work Product Doctrine as discussed in Pfender compared to Medford. Defendant argued that Pfender essentially established a “bright line rule” that material obtained by an insurer before litigation is not protected by the Work Product Doctrine. Defendant urged that Medford established a “case-by-case test,” whereby material prepared by or for an insurer can be protected under the Work Product Doctrine if it was prepared in anticipation of litigation and the party seeking the same cannot establish a substantial need for it.

While the Appellate Division indicated that it did not find Pfender and Medford to be irreconcilable, as Defendant asserted, it did indicate that “the rationale and holding of Pfender needs to be clarified and properly understood as consistent with a case-by-case analysis.”  2019 WL 2375475 at Page 4.

 The Appellate Division thus stated that:

“[W]e clarify that there is no per se or presumptive rule that materials prepared or collected before litigation are not prepared in anticipation of litigation. Instead, as set forth in Rule 4:10-2(c), there is a multi-part, fact-specific test. The first inquiry is whether the materials were prepared or collected in anticipation of litigation or trial by another party or that party’s representative. See R. 4:10-2(c). The representative can be an ‘insurer or agent’ of the party. Ibid. If the materials were prepared in anticipation of litigation or trial, to obtain the materials, there is a two-part standard that must then be satisfied. See ibid. The party seeking the materials must (1) show a substantial need for the discovery; and (2) demonstrate that he or she is unable, without undue hardship, to obtain the substantial equivalent of the materials. Ibid. See also Carbis Sales, Inc., 397 N.J. Super. at 82, 935 A.2d 1236 (first citing Medford, 323 N.J. Super. at 133, 732 A.2d 533; then citing Pfender, 336 N.J. Super. at 391, 765 A.2d 208). Moreover, if such work-product materials are compelled to be produced, “the court shall protect against disclosure of the mental impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal theories of an attorney or other representative of a party concerning the litigation.” R. 4:10-2(c). 2019 WL 2375475 at Page 5.

Significantly, the Court also noted that:

“The scope of the work-product doctrine has other limitations. It has long been established that the doctrine only protects documents or prepared materials; accordingly, it does not protect facts. See Hickman, 329 U.S. at 513, 67 S.Ct. 385; R. 4:10-2(c); O’Boyle, 218 N.J. at 188-89, 94 A.3d 299. Moreover, in considering statements, the doctrine does not protect statements that are prepared in the normal course of business. See Miller v. J.B. Hunt Transp., Inc., 339 N.J. Super. 144, 148, 770 A.2d 1288 (App. Div. 2001) (quoting Payton v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 148 N.J. 524, 554, 691 A.2d 321 (1997)). Finally, we have previously clarified that the protection of a statement will usually be lost if the person who gave the statement is later called to testify at trial. See Dinter v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 252 N.J. Super. 84, 100, 599 A.2d 528 (App. Div. 1991). In Dinter, we held that ‘where a fact witness testifies for an adverse party, the factual statement of that witness must be produced on demand for use in cross-examination as a potential tool for impeachment of credibility.’” 2019 WL 2375475 at Page 5.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division in this matter reversed the Order compelling Defendant to produce the photographs and recorded witness statements, and remanded with a specific instruction to the Trial Court to conduct further proceedings and apply a “case-by-case, fact-specific analysis” to determine whether the photographs and witness statements are within the ambit of the Work Product Doctrine.

Thus, this Opinion is a very helpful elaboration by the Appellate Division on exactly under what circumstances materials secured by an insurance company prior to litigation are subject to disclosure. The specific facts of a given case will accordingly determine whether disclosure is required.

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Appellate Division Revisits Contract and Insurance Policy Interpretation

The Appellate Division on January 22, 2019 decided an interesting case regarding insurance coverage which has been approved for publication. The matter is Katchen v. GEICO et al., No. A-5685-16T4, 2019 WL 272926 (App. Div. Jan. 22, 2019).

In December 2015, Plaintiff Katchen was injured in a motor vehicle accident. Significantly, at the time of the accident, he was operating a Harley-Davidson motorcycle which he owned. Before settling with the other driver or that driver’s $25,000 policy limit, Katchen submitted a UIM claim under three separate insurance policies he maintained:

1. A motorcycle policy issued by Rider Insurance Company;
2. A commercial automobile policy issued by Farmers Insurance Company of Flemington; and
3. A personal auto policy issued by GEICO.

GEICO “disclaim[ed] coverage” pursuant to an exclusion in Section IV of its policy, which addresses both uninsured motorist, or “UM,” and underinsured motorist, “UIM,” coverages.  That provision stated:

“LOSSES WE PAY.

We will pay damages for bodily injury and property damage caused by an accident which the insured is legally entitled to recover from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle or underinsured motor vehicle arising out of the ownership, maintenance[,] or use of that vehicle.”

However, Section IV also contained an exclusion of coverage for “bodily injury sustained by an insured while occupying a motor vehicle owned by an insured and not described in the declarations and not covered by the Bodily Injury and Property Damage liability coverages of this policy.”

Because while the motorcycle was owned by Plaintiff Katchen, it was not listed on the policy issued and GEICO determined that it did not constitute an “owned auto,” which the policy defined as a “vehicle described in this policy for which a premium charges shown for these coverages.”  As a result, GEICO denied the claim.

Plaintiff Katchen then filed a declaratory judgment action naming the three carriers, seeking a declaratory judgment that the UIM coverage of all three carriers applied to the subject accident. GEICO responded by filing a motion urging the court to find its “owned motor vehicle exclusion” to be “valid, unambiguous and enforceable.” The Motion Court denied that motion, finding that the language of GEICO’s policy was ambiguous.

The parties subsequently came to an agreement that Rider and Farmers would pay their respective pro rata share of the total of $975,000.00 in UIM coverage owed to Plaintiff Katchen, and GEICO would pursue this appeal. If GEICO did not prevail, it would pay its pro rata share as well. Plaintiff, Rider and Farmers all opposed GEICO’s appeal.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division indicated that “in this appeal, we consider whether an auto insurance form may combine uninsured (UM) and underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage in a single section and include exclusions not listed on the policy’s declaration page. We also consider if an insurer may exclude UIM coverage for an accident involving a vehicle owned by the insured but not covered under the subject policy.”

The Appellate Division accordingly held that “Because we find the exclusion does not violate public policy or result in ambiguity, we reverse.”

On appeal, contract interpretation is de novo.  Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Committee of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).  When an insurance contract terms are clear and unambiguous, the Court interprets the policy as written, using the “plain, ordinary meaning” of the words used.  Zacarias v. Allstate Insurance Co., 168 N.J. 590, 595 (2001).  But where an ambiguity arises, the policy is interpreted in favor of the insured and against the insurer. President v. Jenkins, 180 N.J. 550, 562-63 (2004).

An ambiguity exists when “the phrasing of the policy is so confusing that the average policyholder cannot make out the boundaries of coverage.”  Weedo v. Stone-E-Brick, Inc., 81 N.J. 233, 247 (1979).

Insurance policies are to be interpreted narrowly, but the provisions within are presumed valid and effective if “specific, plain, clear, prominent and not contrary to public policy.”  Princeton Ins. Co. v. Chunmuang, 151 N.J. 80, 95 (1997).

The Respondents argued that GEICO’s policy, which addressed both UM and UIM coverage in the same section, violated various statutory mandates. GEICO responded that the exclusion unambiguously bars UIM coverage for loss sustained by Plaintiff while operating a motor vehicle he owned but did not insure under GEICO’s policy.

The Appellate Division agreed with GEICO, finding that the policy was not ambiguous.  For example, the Court observed that any ordinary reasonable person understands that a motorcycle is a type of motor vehicle.

While acknowledging that the exclusions did not appear on GEICO’s declaration page, the Appellate Division noted that requiring such would result in even more “fine print” and run the risk of making insurance policies more difficult for the average insured to understand, and would also “eviscerate the rule that a clause should be read in the context of the entire policy.”

Thus, the Appellate Division stated that “The failure to list the exclusion at issue on the declaration page does not automatically render the contract ambiguous. Reading the GEICO policy in its totality, we conclude the exclusion is clear and unambiguous. The fact that the exclusion is not mentioned on the declaration sheet does not bar its enforcement.”

Accordingly, the Katchen opinion is a very instructive recent summary by the Appellate Division of the procedure that will be utilized in analyzing contracts and insurance policies.

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Unmarried, Same-sex Partner Permitted to Bring Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim for Death of Partner’s Biological Child

I’Asia Moreland and Valerie Benning were a same-sex couple who lived with Moreland’s two biological children, I’Maya and I’Zhir, and Benning’s godson, Armonti.  On January 30, 2009, the five of them were waiting to cross the street to attend a “Disney on Ice” show in Trenton, New Jersey, when a fire truck and a pickup truck collided.  The collision caused the pickup truck to strike two-year-old I’Maya, propelling her body sixty-five feet from where she had been holding hands with Benning.  Tragically, I’Maya died as a result of the accident.  I’Asia Moreland and Valerie Benning filed several claims against the defendants, including bystander negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NIED”).

The main issue in the published Appellate Division decision of Moreland v. Parks, 456 N.J. Super. 71, 191 A.3d 729 (App. Div. 2018), was whether Valerie Benning could establish an “intimate, familial relationship” with I’Maya to satisfy the requirements for bringing an NIED claim.

Moreland and Benning were not married at the time of I’Maya’s death.  However, I’Asia Moreland and Benning had cohabitated for at least 17 months and shared similar responsibilities for the care of the three children, including I’Maya.  I’Maya’s biological brother, I’Zhir, referred to Benning and Moreland has his “two moms.”  Benning testified at her deposition that she had suffered extreme emotional distress over I’Maya’s death, and that she had lost one that she loved like her own that day.

Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking dismissal of Benning’s NIED claim.  The motion judge dismissed Benning and Moreland’s relationship as being mere “lovers.”  Additionally, the judge pointed out that Benning and Moreland were not engaged at the time of I’Maya’s death.  The motion judge went as far as to say that Benning was only part of I’Maya’s life for 17 months and “[t]here’s no evidence that there was any permanent bond or that the relationship that she shared with the decedent was one that was deep, lasting, and genuinely intimate.”

In the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Portee v. Jaffee, the Court created the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress to allow a narrow class of litigants the right to seek damages for emotional trauma caused by a tortfeasor’s negligence.  Justice Pashman fashioned four elements for this cause of action: “(1) the death or serious physical injury of another caused by defendant’s negligence; (2) a marital or intimate, familial relationship between plaintiff and the injured person; (3) observation of the death or injury at the scene of the accident; and (4) resulting in severe emotional distress.” Portee, 84 N.J. at 101. In Moreland, the Appellate Division focused on the second element and whether Benning’s relationship with I’Maya rose to the level of an “intimate, familial relationship.”

In a later New Jersey Supreme Court decision, Dunphy v. Gregor, 136 N.J. 99 (1994), the Court extended the limited class of plaintiffs able to seek damages for NIED to a fiancé of the decedent.  In allowing the fiancé to seek damages, even though she was not married to the decedent, the Court crafted a new standard to define the second prong of the Portee test—what exactly constitutes an “intimate, familial relationship.”  The factors used in finding if such a relationship exists are (1) the length of the relationship, (2) the degree of mutual dependence, (3) the degree of shared contributions to a life together, (4) the extent and quality of joint experience, and (5) whether the plaintiff and the decedent were members of the same household, and other factors.

With that legal background, the Appellate Division in Moreland examined whether Valerie Benning had an intimate, familial relationship with I’Maya at the time of her death.  In making its decision, the Appellate Division noted that the definition of what a “family” is has greatly expanded since Portee was decided in 1980 and even since Dunphy was decided in 1994. The Appellate Division held that an “intimate, familial relationship” supporting a claim for NIED could include the relationship between a mother’s cohabitating same-sex partner and the mother’s biological child.  Therefore, the trial court improperly dismissed Benning’s claim because it was possible that a jury could find Benning maintained an intimate, familial relationship with I’Maya at the time of her death.