Under Georgia law, a defendant’s admission of liability may be presented as evidence in a negligence case. Admissions of liability can have considerable influence on juries, so determinations regarding which evidence may properly be considered an admission are often hotly contested. Although trial courts have considerable discretion in making such evidentiary determinations, their rulings, given the potential impact, are not immune from appellate review. Indeed, in a recent decision, Agic v. Metro. Atlanta Rapid Transit Auth., the Georgia Court of Appeals recently reversed a trial court for improperly excluding evidence of a MARTA bus driver’s admission of liability for an auto accident.
As noted above, Agic arose from a motor vehicle accident involving a MARTA bus and two other vehicles. The plaintiff in this case was a passenger in an SUV being operated by another person. The driver of the bus hit a different vehicle while attempting to change lanes on North Druid Hills Road. The collision caused the other vehicle to travel into incoming traffic, where it was struck by the SUV in which the plaintiff was traveling. After the collisions, the police told the bus driver he was free to go but then later requested that he return to the scene of the accident, where the bus driver was issued a traffic citation for improperly changing lanes. The bus driver paid the citation without appearing in traffic court, resulting in forfeiture of bond. In addition, MARTA conducted its own investigation of the crash, and the driver signed a report that acknowledged that the accident was “preventable.” The plaintiff sustained injuries as a result of the crash and brought suit against MARTA and the bus driver. Prior to trial, the defendants made a motion in limine, which sought to exclude any reference to the citation during trial. The trial court granted the motion. After the trial, the jury returned a verdict favorable to MARTA, and the plaintiff appealed the verdict.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of the bus driver’s traffic citation and bond forfeiture. The Court of Appeals agreed. As noted above, a party’s payment of a fine and failure to appear constitutes an admission of guilt, which may be used in subsequent civil litigation against that party. See, e.g., Cannon v. Street, 220 Ga. App. 212, 214 (2) (1996). Indeed, O.C.G.A. § 40-13-58 provides that someone who posts a cash bond and then subsequently forfeits the bond by failing to appear has, as a matter of law, pleaded guilty. Given that the conduct for which the bus driver received the citation led to the accident, evidence of the citation could be used to establish negligence per se. Accordingly, it was a legal error for the trial court to find the evidence inadmissible.
The bus driver argued, in opposition, that his conduct could not be considered a voluntary admission of guilt, since he did not personally pay the fine but instead had his daughter do it on his behalf. However, the Court of Appeals found the argument unavailing, for the bus driver was aware of the citation and had directed its payment. See, e.g., Burnette v. Brown, 272 Ga. App. 383, 383-84 (2) (2005) (holding that there was an admission against interest when the defendant was aware of a traffic citation that her husband paid on her behalf and then subsequently failed to appear in court to contest the citation, resulting in bond forfeiture). Alternatively, the defendants argued that even if it were an error to exclude evidence of the citation, the evidence did not affect the verdict because that evidence was duplicative of the evidence regarding MARTA’s internal investigation that the plaintiff was permitted to present. However, the Court of Appeals found that the exclusion was prejudicial because the citation, unlike the report finding the accident “preventable,” could have been used to establish negligence per se, which would have created a presumption of negligence under the circumstances. In addition, the citation could have been used to impeach the testimony of the driver at trial, during which he testified that he had complied with the law and checked to see if there were cars in the other lane. Accordingly, it could not be held that the exclusion of the citation did not affect the substantial rights of the plaintiff in establishing negligence liability.
Although this plaintiff will get another chance to prove negligence, reversing trial court evidentiary determinations on appeal can be difficult. Indeed, trial court judges are given significant latitude in making these determinations, and potential litigants should make an effort to have pertinent evidence admitted in the first instance. The assistance of experienced trial counsel can be useful for handling evidentiary disputes, and those with a possible claim should consider enlisting the aid of an attorney who can help them navigate the process. The Atlanta auto accident attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have represented many injured Georgian drivers, and they are prepared to offer you the benefits of their guidance. Indeed, if you have a possible claim and would like to know more about its viability and your options for recovery, do not hesitate to contact us for a free case consultation.