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Supreme Court: ‘remoteness’ of prior conviction doesn’t affect admissibility

May 11, 2017

Determining that the “remoteness” of a prior offense does not affect the admissibility of evidence at trial, the Indiana Supreme Court has affirmed the award of roughly $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a man injured by a drunk driver.

In May 2013, Andrew Pappas was driving to his job in Crown Point when his car collided head-on with a car being driven by Danny Sims, who was later found to have had a blood alcohol content of 0.18 at the time of the collision. Pappas sustained serious injuries, and Sims pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while intoxicated as a Class C misdemeanor.

Pappas filed a complaint against Sims a month after the accident, asserting theories of negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and willful and wanton misconduct. Additionally, Pappas’ wife, Melissa, joined the complaint on a loss of consortium claim.

During pretrial discovery, Sims was asked to admit or deny that he had previously been convicted of reckless driving and operating while intoxicated in 1996 and 1983. Sims objected on relevance grounds, but admitted “without waving said objection.”

Further, Sims filed a pretrial motion in limine seeking to exclude various items of evidence, including evidence that “Sims may have been involved in prior or subsequent automobile accidents,” evidence of “Sims’s driving record” and “evidence of Defendant’s financial status.” The Lake Superior Court withheld judgment on those motions until trial.

During the June 2015 trial, Pappas moved to introduce evidence of Sims’ driving record through the testimony of the investigating police officer, which the trial court allowed over Sims’ objection. A jury returned a $1.4 million verdict for Pappas for compensatory damages, and a $373,500 verdict for his wife for his loss of consortium claim. Pappas was also awarded $182,500 in punitive damages.

Sims filed a motion objecting to entry of judgment on the jury’s verdict, which the trial court treated as a motion to correct error and subsequently denied. Sims then appealed, arguing the trial court had improperly admitted evidence of his prior criminal convictions and that the awards of compensatory and punitive damages were excessive and unsupported by evidence.

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case for a retrial. The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer and heard arguments in the case of Danny Sims v. Andrew Pappas and Melissa Pappas, 45S03-1701-CT-26, at Theodore Roosevelt College and Career Academy, formerly known as Gary Roosevelt High School, in March. The oral arguments were held at Justice Robert Rucker’s alma mater to commemorate his impending retirement this Friday.

In a unanimous opinion handed down Thursday, the justices affirmed the original judgment of the trial court, but Rucker wrote the high court did agree with the Court of Appeals that “evidence of Sims’ prior convictions was ‘not relevant’ with respect to compensatory damages and loss of consortium.’” However, the issue before the court was the narrow question of whether the evidence of his prior convictions was relevant for punitive damages, Rucker said.

Within the meaning of Indiana Rule of Evidence 401, the evidence was relevant, the justices found, because it “had at least some, if not substantial, ‘tendency in demonstrating whether Sims’ conduct at the time of the collision was a conscious and voluntary act committed in reckless disregard of the consequences of others.” Rucker emphasized the evidence was relevant only to the issue of punitive damages, but neither party requested a limiting instruction or bifurcated trial.

Further, the justices held the remoteness of a prior offense, such as Sims’ 1983 and 1996 prior convictions, does not affect its admissibility and, thus, evidence of Sims’ prior conviction was not unfairly prejudicial.

The court additionally ruled the compensatory damages award “fell squarely within the bounds of evidence” and, thus, declined to disturb that issue. Finally, the court rejected Sims’ constitutional argument against the award of punitive damages, which he argued were excessive because he could not afford to pay the damages, because “a plaintiff is not ‘required to offer proof of the defendant’s ability to pay a punitive damages award.’”

 

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