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DTCI: Photo of car admissible to show lack of injury

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DTCI-Hehner-ButzOn Aug. 10, 2011, the Indiana Court of Appeals issued an opinion that addressed for the first time the issue of whether a photograph of vehicle damage is relevant and admissible to assist a jury in determining the extent of bodily injury in a trial arising from a motor vehicle accident. In Flores v. Guiterrez, No. 45A04-1101-CT-28, 2011 WL 3501865 (Ind. App. Aug. 10, 2011), the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s admission of a photograph of the plaintiff’s vehicle following the motor vehicle accident at issue, in which he was rear-ended by the defendant. The photograph depicted a vehicle with “little to no damage.” Despite the fact that liability was already determined, the jury awarded the plaintiff zero damages.  

On appeal, the plaintiff claimed the photograph was inadmissible on the grounds that it was irrelevant to any determination of his bodily injury. The court and parties agreed there is no Indiana authority on this issue so the court looked to other jurisdictions for support. While the court noted some jurisdictions bar the admission of photographs of property damage for purposes of establishing injury absent expert testimony showing a causal link, the Court of Appeals sided with those jurisdictions that allow photographs of property damage to show injury even with no expert testimony. Those other jurisdictions (and the Court of Appeals of Indiana) believe the relationship between the force of impact, the resultant injury, and the extent of the relationship is a jury issue, and the jury should be permitted to view photographs of vehicles involved in an accident. The court ultimately agreed with the trial court and held that the damage (or lack thereof) to the plaintiff’s vehicle had some tendency to prove or disprove facts relating to his personal injury claim. In outlining its reasoning the court stated:

“Here, the trial court admitted Exhibit D [the photograph of the automobile] on the basis that it was properly authenticated and relevant to Flores’s [the Plaintiff’s] personal injury claim arising out of a car accident. Flores [the Plaintiff] admitted during his testimony that Exhibit D truly and accurately depicted his vehicle as a result of the impact. Under Indiana Evidence Rule 401, relevant evidence is ‘evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.’ (Emphasis supplied). In admitting Exhibit D, the trial court concluded that the damage or lack thereof, to Flores’s vehicle had some tendency to prove or disprove facts relating to his personal injury claim. We agree. Flores presented no expert testimony to suggest that, under these facts, no such tendency existed. To the contrary, his own expert, Dr. Jones, testified that he had inquired into vehicle damage when assessing Flores’s condition immediately following the accident. While additional testimony by Dr. Jones suggested that a direct relationship between damage and injury does not always exist, he did not indicate that such a relationship was nonexistent under these circumstances.” Flores v. Guiterrez, No. 45A04-1101-CT-28, 2011 WL 3501865, at 5 (footnote omitted).

The Court of Appeals also noted in a footnote that while “the link at issue here is between minimal property damage and minimal injury, this commonsense relationship may also be relevant to link significant property damage and serious injury.” Id. n.3.

Pursuant to this opinion, a photograph of vehicle damage is therefore likely to be considered relevant and admissible to the issue of bodily injury in a personal injury action, unless the party seeking to exclude the photograph has expert testimony tending to show the lack of a direct relationship between the damage and the injury.•

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Jim Hehner and Ashley Arthur Butz practice with the law firm of Hehner & Associates, LLC in Indianapolis. Mr. Hehner is a director of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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