How to Get A Stipulation at Trial

Today I had a trial in an auto accident injury case. My case was in Montgomery County District Court. It was what I call a “left turn” case. The defendant driver made a left turn across my client’s path, causing a pretty forceful collision.

The crash was bad enough that my guy wasn’t able to tell the responding paramedics where he was or what time it was. He did not know what day it was. He later suffered from nausea, believed to be from a concussion. While he was in the hospital for two days, he needed help from an occupational therapist to use the bathroom and to brush his teeth. Ultimately, he needed about a month of medical treatment. He was treated by the hospital’s attending orthopedist and got physical therapy from a therapist that the orthopedist referred him to.

The insurance carrier contested liability at trial. The defendant driver said in his interrogatory answers that my guy was contributorily negligent because he was speeding.

At trial, he testified that he was making a left turn on a yellow light. He said that he looked both ways and saw no oncoming traffic. He also said that his view of oncoming traffic was obscured, and that once he was halfway through his turn, suddenly, the Plaintiff’s truck was there and there was a collision. He never said anything about my client’s speed.

My guy testified that he was heading straight at about 30 miles per hour. He said that he looked up and saw the green light overhead when he was about 100 feet from the intersection. That’s the last thing he remembers until he wakes up in the hospital.

In Maryland, the law is that a driver who enters an intersection on a yellow signal may lawfully proceed through the intersection, even if the light subsequently changes to red. It’s also the law that a vehicle making a left turn must yield the right of way to oncoming traffic.

My theory of the case was that using the defendant’s admissions, I could prove liability even though my client had no idea what happened. I thought it was likely that the light was the same for both the defendant and my guy since they were going in opposite directions on the same road.

So I subpoenaed a traffic control engineer from Montgomery County government to testify about the timing of the light. He brought a set of timing diagrams with him and was ready to testify that if the defendant had a yellow light when he entered the intersection, so did my client. I pointed him out to defense counsel before trial, and she spent a few minutes talking to him as well. I let her know that I would call him to testify about the timing of the light.

This is the funny part. Then the defense attorney looks at me and says that I really didn’t need to subpoena the witness and that she would stipulate the light was the same both ways. I told her it’s funny how when the witness shows up, everyone wants to stipulate! There’s a lesson there, which is that it’s always more convenient to stipulate to something YOU WERE ALREADY PREPARED TO PROVE. Trust me, it doesn’t work the other way around.

I won the case because if they both entered the intersection, even on a yellow light, the defendant still had a duty to yield the right of way. Our complaint asked for $30,000.00, and the verdict was $27,000.00. That’s a good result.

I actually think that the defense would have had a better shot on damages in this case if liability was admitted. For a few reasons. One, counsel could have eliminated lengthy cross-examination on liability and used that time for a detailed cross-examination on damages. Two, I think the attempt to avoid fault made the defendant (an otherwise nice young guy) look bad, so the court didn’t have any pangs of regret making a damages award.

I’m not going to be one of those guys who wins every case they blog about. “In my last triumphant victory, I blah, blah, blah….” I hate it when lawyer blogs do that. I will write about the cases that end up in the loss column too. There’s always something to be learned from trial experience.