Majority: injured worker’s immigration status relevant

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in a split decision a man’s immigration status is valid evidence in a case where he was injured while working in the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

Noe Escamilla was born in Mexico and moved to the United States with his family. He eventually moved to Indiana, where he found work as a masonry laborer. In 2010 while on a job site, Escamilla slipped on ice and fell and was permanently restricted from lifting more than 20 pounds, which meant he could no longer work as a masonry worker. He was an undocumented immigrant worker at the time.

Escamilla, a subcontractor, sued the general contractor at his work site, Shiel Sexton, seeking medical expenses, lost wages and future income. He then filed a motion in limine to prevent mention of his immigration status. Shiel Sexton moved to exclude the expert witnesses Escamilla was going to call because they were going to talk about the money he could have earned in the United States, and Escamilla was not eligible to work in the United States. Shiel Sexton thought the discussion should be limited to what Escamilla could earn in Mexico. The trial court denied Escamilla’s motion and granted Shiel Sexton’s. Escamilla appealed.

The COA said it could not affirm Shiel Sexton’s motion based on the trial court’s reasoning that Escamilla was not eligible to work in the United States because a fact-finder may award damages to an immigrant based on U.S. wages if the evidence allows it. However, the COA reversed the admission of a report because one of Escamilla’s experts didn’t take into account that he was an undocumented immigrant when she made her calculations of what he could have earned, and because of that the report was not properly tied to Escamilla’s case.

The COA majority also affirmed the denial of Escamilla’s motion because his immigration status is necessary evidence in figuring out how much Escamilla should receive. He and the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association argued that the evidence of his status is prejudicial in today’s climate so the report’s probative value is outweighed. The COA said otherwise.

“However, it is not apparent how Escamilla’s trier of fact might accurately determine his future earning capacity without that knowledge, as it must determine whether to award lost earnings based on United States wages, Mexican wages or some other standard. The prejudicial effect of that evidence therefore currently does not outweigh its probative value,” Judge Melissa May wrote for the majority.

Judge John Baker dissented, saying he didn’t see how evidence of Escamilla’s immigration status could possibly be helpful and would only hinder his chances due to the prejudicial effects.

“Of the many factors that the majority recognizes as relevant to the calculation of damages for loss of future income, one’s present immigration status is certainly the least relevant,” Baker wrote. “This is in part because, unlike other factors, an individual’s ability to remain in this country is a function of the law, and historically, immigration law has been subject to substantial change.”

Also, he said undocumented immigrants retain a very low risk of deportation, and allowing consideration of the issue may diminish the effectiveness of state tort law. Baker said introducing this evidence could turn the tort case “into a battle of immigration experts, taking focus away from the injury to be redressed.”

The case is Noe Escamilla v. Shiel Sexton Company Inc., 54A01-1506-CT-602.

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