By Francis M. Smith
If a personal injury case resulting from a car crash or other accident goes to trial, the outcome of that case will likely be decided by a jury. As almost anyone who has ever received a jury duty notice in the mail knows, jurors are average citizens (the “peers” of those involved in the trial) who typically have little or no specialized knowledge of the law, outside of whatever they may have retained from a high school civics class. Jurors who are selected to decide a particular case must be briefed on the points of law relevant to the case in question, which they must consider in conjunction with the evidence and testimony presented by the attorneys during the trial proceedings.
Based on the information they hear and their own judgment, this handful of citizens must decide whether the accident victim should receive compensation for their injuries, and the amount of any damage award granted. As this decision will have a huge and lasting impact on the health and financial well-being of the injured person, it's natural to assume that the members of the jury are provided with every bit of available information relevant to the case, in order to make the fairest and most informed decision possible. Unfortunately, that isn't always true – insurance companies have been able to maneuver into place laws that enable them to restrict certain facts from being introduced to the jury, preventing jurors from seeing the full picture of the situation on which they are being asked to rule.
In most personal injury suits, especially cases like car accidents, the negligent person who caused the accident is listed as the defendant and is the official target of the lawsuit, but in reality that person's insurance company is running the show on the defense's side. The at-fault driver's insurance company will often provide a lawyer and a legal team to research the accident, gather evidence and witness testimony aimed at discrediting the injury victim or casting doubt on the circumstances of the crash, and run the defense argument in court. This makes perfect sense, since if the jury decides in favor of the accident victim, it's the insurance company that will be held responsible for the damage payout.
Despite the insurance company's significant involvement in the defense and strong financial stake in the outcome of the trial, the injury victim's attorney may not be allowed to introduce any evidence before the jury that mentions or relates to the defendant's insurance coverage. This allows the defense lawyers (really, the insurance company's lawyers) to engage in deception by omission. By implication, they can present an image of a financially suffering defendant whose “mistake” on the road stands to bankrupt his family – when in reality the worst that is likely to happen to him is that his insurance premiums will go up a little. By blocking any evidence relevant to the defendant's insurance coverage, his lawyer is able to encourage the jury to imagine the dire financial crisis a large damage award would cause him. In their misplaced sympathy, the jury might award a much lower sum to the injury victim than he or she deserves in order to avoid causing the defendant great economic hardship.
The stated reason for this restriction on evidence pertaining to the defendant's insurance policy is to prevent the presence of insurance coverage from influencing the jury's decision. This, however, disregards the reality that the assumed absence of insurance, resulting from the ban on any mention of it, can also prejudice the jury just as much (if not more so). Because they are blocked from hearing evidence about the defendant's insurance coverage, the jurors may not even realize that the lawyer who is leading them to this erroneous conclusion is, in fact, a paid employee of the defendant's insurance company.
Certainly it's bad for the jury in a personal injury case to be deceived about where the money for the damage award they grant will be coming from, but it's always possible that if they stick to the facts of the case and don't allow themselves to be swayed by sympathy, they won't fall for that trick. Unfortunately, jurors are not always allowed to hear all the facts of the case itself, either. In order to encourage those involved in a car accident to be cooperative and truthful with police, the admissibility of the accident report in court may be limited – including any tickets or citations received by the defendant. However, if the injured plaintiff was ever the victim of a previous car crash, the defense lawyer has no such restrictions on bringing up that case, either to discredit the plaintiff or to downplay the severity of his or her injuries, blaming them on the previous crash instead of the one currently on trial. The role of your personal injury attorney is to make sure that even under some outdated rules, you get the fairest possible hearing of your case in court.
If you or a loved one have been injured in a serious accident, please contact me or call me at 908-233-5800 for a free consultation.