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Divided COA tosses $2M DUI crash verdict over old convictions

October 13, 2016

The majority of an Indiana Court of Appeals panel held Thursday that a drunken driver’s decades-old convictions for alcohol-related offenses were irrelevant and prejudicial in a civil suit following a personal-injury crash. A dissenting judge, though, wrote the admissibility of such evidence should go to its weight rather than its age.

A Lake Superior jury awarded Andrew and Melissa Pappas nearly $2 million in damages after Andrew Pappas’ car was struck in May 2013 by a car driven by Danny Sims. Sims’ blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit. An ensuing civil trial awarded the crash victim $1.44 million in compensatory damages, $182,500 in punitive damages, and his wife $373,500 for loss of consortium.

During oral arguments in June, the appeals panel grappled with whether Sims’ alcohol-related driving convictions that were 17 and 30 years old should have been before the jury.

Senior Judge Randall Shepard and Judge Patricia Riley formed the majority that tossed the verdict. Sims’ dated convictions “neither proved nor disproved any facts that were central to the main question the jury decided — compensatory damages and loss of consortium, “ Shepard wrote in Danny Sims v. Andrew Pappas and Melissa Pappas, 45A03-1509-CT-1424. “As they were not relevant to these issues and unfairly prejudicial (though probably not to the question of punitive damages), we reverse and order a new trial.

The majority, however, declined to establish a rule barring evidence of convictions more than 10 years old.

“We do not say that evidence of decades-old, alcohol-related offenses can never be admissible in civil actions for damages arising from motor vehicle accidents. But in this case, in light of Sims’ admissions of fault and to being intoxicated at the time of the accident, and taking into consideration the evidence regarding the circumstances of the accident that was presented at trial, and the inferences made by the Pappases’ counsel that Sims was not punished properly for the prior convictions, the prejudicial effect of evidence of a thirty-year-old conviction for OWI and a seventeen-year-old conviction for reckless driving outweighs any probative value the evidence can serve,” Shepard wrote.

Dissenting Judge Robert Altice wrote that while the remoteness of the convictions tends to diminish their probative value, this should go to the weight of the evidence rather than its admissibility.

“On more than one occasion, the majority observes that the prior convictions had no relevance or probative value with respect to the determination of compensatory damages. This is true but beside the point,” Altice wrote. “A review of the record, especially closing arguments, makes clear that the evidence of Sims’s prior offenses was admitted for the sole purpose of establishing punitive damages. The evidence had a direct bearing on the reprehensibility of Sims’s actions and his state of mind at the time of the accident.” Altice would find no error or abuse of discretion by the trial court in admitting the evidence.

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