Traditionally, personal injury claims have generally consisted of a plaintiff seeking damages for expenses and “pain and suffering” relating to physical injuries sustained as a result of an accident. Emotional distress is an element of a plaintiff’s pain and suffering, but is not, in and of itself, a separate and distinct claim. There seems to be a recent rise in the number of claims that are alleging specific emotional or psychological damages in personal injury claims, which if backed up by expert testimony could add substantial value to a plaintiff’s claim. Diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or generalized anxiety resulting from an accident can be difficult to definitively contest from a defense perspective and, at the very least, will require a defendant and insurer to retain a competing expert to assess the validity of such a diagnosis. Therefore, it is essential that insurers and defense attorneys be aware of the limitations that a plaintiff faces in trying to introduce such claims, the evidence that can be used to support them, and the potentially difficult trial strategy decisions that a defendant may fact in light of such claims. Historically, such emotional injury claims could be made only if caused by the physical impact of the accident, but that has not stopped plaintiffs from pursuing such damages that may resulted from actions unrelated to the accidents themselves, particularly the conduct and behavior of the defendant. Evidence of potentially heinous conduct by a defendant that has no bearing on the cause of an accident could still have a very negative effect on a jury’s decision. The potential prejudice to a defendant has not gone unnoticed by the Maryland courts, and recent a recent Court of Special Appeals decision has confirmed that Maryland does not allow emotional distress claims that arise apart from the underlying accident itself.
In Alban v. Fiels, 61 A.3d 867 (Md. App. 2013), Michael Fiels caused an auto accident when he veered across the center line of traffic and collided with a pickup truck being occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Alban. At trial, witnesses were prepared to testify that Mr. Fiels left the scene of the accident and proceeded down the road. However, he encountered a dead end and, therefore, had to turn around and drive past the Albans’ vehicle in order to continue fleeing the scene. The witnesses would have further testified that Mr. Fiels laughed at the Albans as he drove past them the second time. The court opinion indicated that the Albans were taken to University of Maryland Shock Trauma and released. Their physical injuries were apparently minor. Notwithstanding the lack of significant physical injury, the Albans filed a lawsuit against Fiels alleging psychological injuries and emotional distress, including crying, anxiety, and sleeplessness. Their Complaint contained a count labeled “Intentional Acts of Outrage,” which asserted that Fiels fleeing and apparent laughter caused them to sustain severe emotional trauma, and sought $1,000,000 in damages resulting from his intentional conduct.
The Albans were prepared to call the witnesses at trial, as well as calling an expert psychologist to testify that Mrs. Alban suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of fear from being trapped in the car, Mr. Fiels not even stopping to see if they were alright, and being told that Fiels later laughed or smirked about the accident. Prior to trial, Fiels’ attorney sought to exclude any evidence from being presented relating to his post-accident conduct. Fiels had admitted liability for the accident and, as such, those actions were irrelevant or not sufficiently probative so as to outweigh their prejudicial impact. The trial court granted Fiels request, stating the Fiels’ post-accident actions – laughing and smirking – were not relevant or admissible. After receiving a less-than-impressive jury award of $10,000, the Albans filed an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. That Court upheld the trial judge’s evidentiary rulings, agreeing that Mr. Fiels’ post-accident conduct was irrelevant, and even if one assumed that it was relevant, the trial court was within its discretion to exclude the evidence on the basis that it would be unfairly prejudicial.
The appellate court discussed a line of cases where plaintiffs sought recovery for emotional distress, and noted two elements generally required in order for such a claim to be made. First, a physical impact and injury are generally required and, second, the claim for emotional injuries should arise from the accident itself, not from facts learned later. In support of its decision the Court of Special Appeals noted another recent auto accident case, Hendrix v. Burns, in which the injured driver of an automobile was prevented from offering evidence that she sustained significant emotional distress after finding out that the defendant had been in the midst of a road rage accident, was under the influence at the time of the accident, and had a long history of alcohol-related driving offenses. The Court did not see a distinction between the Albans’ claims and the Hendrix case. To the extent that Mrs. Alban wanted to assert that her injuries were caused or exacerbated by Mr. Fiels’ post-accident conduct, she was not permitted to do so. To the extent that Mrs. Alban sustained emotional distress as a result of the auto accident itself, she was entitled to present evidence of this claim and recover damages. However, to the extent that Mrs. Alban claimed that she suffered additional emotional distress as a result of Fiels’ post-accident laughter, it was a separate issue and was not a legally recognized claim in Maryland.
One final interesting statement was rendered in the court’s opinion: at trial, both Mrs. Alban and her expert testified about her distress over the fact that Mr. Fiels fled the scene which, in essence, allowed the jury to hear evidence that Mr. Fiels fled the scene. The court, in a footnote, indicated that these comments were admitted a trial because “there was no objection,” even though the trial court had earlier ruled that all of Fiels’ post-accident conduct was irrelevant and inadmissible. The suggestion from this footnote is that the Court of Special Appeals agreed that evidence of Mr. Fiels’ fleeing the scene was irrelevant and would not have been admitted if an objection had been made. This statement by the Court could be more impactful on future cases than the specific holding itself, as the circumstance of a motor vehicle operator fleeing a scene will happen much more often than an allegation that such person mocked the event itself. Accordingly, in future cases, defense attorneys should be able to convincingly argue that evidence of fleeing the scene should be excluded when the defendant admits liability for the accident. The admission of liability is essential. If a defendant does not admit liability, which would include waiving affirmative defenses such as contributory negligence, then evidence of post-accident conduct or other potentially prejudicial evidence against the Defendant would likely be admissible. In fact, if the defendant intends to testify at all, then all such evidence is likely fair game at trial because, at that point, the otherwise inadmissible conduct of the defendant could become relevant as to his/her credibility as a witness. Attorneys and insurance carriers will, therefore, have to be evaluate the pros and cons of having the defendant testify versus the potentially prejudicial facts being brought to the jury’s attention.