Pennsylvania Superior Court Finds Mention of “Insurance” During Auto Accident Lawsuit Not Necessarily Grounds for Mistrial
Auto insurance policies compensate victims of a car accident and help the at-fault party avoid litigation and personal liability. In the event of a personal liability lawsuit, Pennsylvania’s Rules of Evidence state that evidence that a person was or was not insured is not admissible to prove negligence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently reviewed a claim that a trial court erred in allowing evidence of insurance coverage during a personal injury lawsuit involving a car accident.
In this case, a driver rear-ended another vehicle while it was stopped at a red light. The rear-ended driver alleged injuries and filed a complaint in court. A jury trial entered a verdict finding the driver negligent, but this negligence was not the factual cause of the injuries. The injured party then filed a motion for post-trial relief, alleging that she was prejudiced by the testimony about insurance and that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The trial court denied her motion and entered judgment in favor of the driver. The injured party appealed.
On appeal, the injured party contended that the court should not have admitted a statement in trial about her insurance coverage because it violated Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 411. This rule states that evidence of insurance liability is inadmissible to provide negligence, but the court may admit it for another purpose.
Here, the driver testified that he approached the injured driver’s vehicle after striking it with his own car. He saw the injured woman get out of her car and then she said, “You better call the cops, and I hope you have insurance.”
On appeal, the injured party claimed that this intentional statement was made to put her in a bad light with the jury and imply that her quest for damages was premeditated and based on untruths. She also claimed that the word “insurance” prejudiced her, since the jury ultimately found the driver’s actions did not cause her injuries.
Her second argument was that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Here, the evidence included the fact that she was transported to the hospital and treated after the accident, she underwent five weeks of physical therapy, and her chiropractor, an expert witness, testified that her injuries were caused by the accident. She also alleged that a limiting jury instruction could not have corrected the statement at issue. For this reason, she argued for a new trial.
The court stated the general rule that evidence of insurance is irrelevant and prejudicial, justifying the grant of a mistrial. Evidence of insurance is not admissible upon the issue of negligence. But the court cited case law that the mere mention of the word insurance does not necessitate a new trial. Instead, the aggrieved party must demonstrate prejudice.
In this case, the court found that the claim had been waived for a few reasons. First, the injured party had not timely objected to the testimony during trial. The rule is that to preserve an issue for review, the objecting party must timely and specifically object. In other words, a party cannot remain silent and then later complain of matters that could have been corrected by the court.
In this case, the injured driver had not produced the trial transcript for the appellate court to review. By failing to include the whole transcript of proceedings, she failed to abide by the appellate procedural rules. The court was unable to review her arguments on appeal without an adequate record, so her claims were waived and the judgment affirmed.