A successful legal outcome in a wrongful death case is a journey filled with countless steps. From discovery and evidence collection to pretrial motions and jury selection to the trial itself (and sometimes the appellate process,) each of these steps requires in-depth knowledge of the facts of the case, the law, and the rules of trial procedure. A weakness in any of these areas can potentially torpedo your case, which is why it's so important to ensure that, when you begin your journey toward seeking justice, you start by retaining a knowledgeable Santa Barbara wrongful death lawyer.
A wrongful death case that was recently revived by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers California, Arizona, and several other western states,) illustrates that point well.
The origin of the case was a fatal crash about 150 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. At around 8:00 a.m., a tour bus bound for the Grand Canyon exited a Burger King and entered the left lane of westbound U.S. Highway 160. In the process, the bus driver pulled out in front of a pickup truck. The driver of the truck attempted to veer around and pass on the right. As the pickup pulled up alongside the bus, the bus collided with an oncoming car traveling eastbound on Highway 160.
The driver of the eastbound car died in the crash. The man's wife and son suffered serious injuries.
The widow sued the bus driver, the travel agency, and the entity that provided the agency with the chartered bus, asserting claims of negligence and wrongful death. The widow's theory was that the bus driver became distracted by the pickup truck passing on the right and, as a result, strayed across the centerline and into the path of the oncoming car.
A Pretrial Motion to Shield Against Inadmissible Opinion Evidence
Just like many major injury/death cases, the plaintiff provided expert witnesses as part of her case. The defense, purportedly as part of their efforts to impeach the testimony of the widow's experts, sought to use a police report created by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
At that point, the widow's legal team wisely took action, making something called a "motion in limine." A motion in limine is when a party asks the court to exclude the other side from using certain evidence or making specific arguments during the trial. The widow's motion argued that the parts of the DPS report that contained "discussions, opinions, and conclusions about what allegedly happened based on interviews and other inadmissible sources" should be excluded as either impermissible hearsay or unfairly prejudicial.
The trial judge granted the motion but, during the trial, allowed the defense to ask a plaintiff's expert about opinions the Arizona state trooper who responded to the scene put in his report -- specifically, the trooper's conclusions that the bus driver "engaged in no improper driving" and that the deceased man was going too fast.
The 9th Circuit reversed the judgment for the defendants. When the trial court allowed to defense to introduce into evidence the state trooper's opinions that the bus driver was completely without fault and that the deceased man had been going too fast, the court admitted impermissible hearsay. The trooper's conclusions, according to the appeals court, "lacked any independent guarantee of trustworthiness" necessary to overcome the general rule against hearsay.
This successful appeal means the widow gets a new trial, and a new chance to obtain fair compensation either through a judgment or a settlement.
When it comes to securing a fair trial that complies with the law and all the rules of court procedure, count on the tenacious Santa Barbara wrongful death attorneys at the law firm of Galine, Frye, Fitting & Frangos, LLP to protect your rights. Contact us at 805-617-1365 or through our website to get a free case consultation today. Our team is dedicated to helping you level the playing field in your pursuit of justice.