Summary of Davis v. Maute: Big Case on the Introduction of Pictures of the Car at Trial

Why This Case Matters

The relevance at the trial of photographic evidence is determined by the trial court, guided by the appellate court. In car accident cases, this issue frequently arises. Are car accident photos admissible if the party seeking to admit that pictures has not provided expert testimony correlating the extent of damage to the vehicles to the injuries sustained in the crash? This door swings both ways for plaintiffs and defendants (with one small differentiation discussed below). This case is the one that Maryland court in Mason v. Lynch considered and rejected.

The Facts of Davis v. Mauteaccident scene

Delaware went the other way on this issue and the seminal Delaware case on this issue is instructive. In this case, the Plaintiff, Rosetta Davis suffered personal injuries when a car driven by the Defendant, Franz Maute, ran a red light and collided with Plaintiff's car. Ms. Davis alleged that she sustained severe personal injuries as a result of the accident. While admitting responsibility for the crash, Ms. Maute's attorneys argued that Ms. Davis did not suffer a significant injury.

At the trial on damages, Davis presented expert medical testimony that the collision caused Davis to twist suddenly and that this motion caused permanent injuries to Plaintiff's back, neck, and ribs. Davis also presented evidence that the pain caused by these injuries was impacting her day-to-day life. 

The Defendant argued that Davis had only soft-tissue injuries from the car accident and that any further injury from the crash was due to a preexisting arthritic condition unrelated to the auto accident. To support the argument that the injuries were minor, Defendant's lawyer introduced pictures of the vehicles in the auto accident which showed minimal damage.

The jury returned an award of $8,766 to the plaintiff, including $6,207 in stipulated medical expenses. Believing that the jury did not adequately account for the permanency of Davis' injuries, the trial court granted Davis' motion for additur and awarded Davis a total of $12,000. 

Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the pictures of the car were unduly prejudicial to the Plaintiff's case and should not have been admitted into evidence.

The Delaware Supreme Court ruled that the defendant's lawyer in a personal injury case may not contend that the damage to the vehicle in a car accident correlates to the extent of the damage to the cars unless the defendant proffers expert testimony on the issue of the correlation. 

In the absence of such testimony, defendant's personal injury lawyer cannot argue to the jury that minimal property damage to a plaintiff's car in an auto accident translates into minimal personal injuries to the plaintiff amounts to speculation. 

Specifically, the court found that "absent such expert testimony, any inference by the jury that minimal damage to the plaintiff's car translates into minimal personal injuries to the plaintiff would necessarily amount to unguided speculation." 

This rule takes discretion out of the judge's hands as to whether to admit the photographs of the property damage to the parties vehicle in an auto accident. The Plaintiff in Mason v. Lynch, 388 Md. 37, 878 A.2d 588 (2005) sought to advance this argument in a Prince George's County case, urging the Maryland Court of Appeals to adopt this rule. The court declined to adopt the Delaware rule. 

Arguments to Keep the Pictures Out of Evidence 

There are three key arguments to keep pictures of evidence:

  1. The doctors did not rely on the photographs in forming their opinions. Accordingly, the photos were inadmissible for lack of an expert opinion relating the damage the claimed injuries.  The thinking is that showing photographs to the jury so that they could draw the improper, speculative, unsupported and prejudicial inferences unsupported by expert testimony that the severe damage (or, conversely, the lack of damage) to the vehicles corresponded to the victim's claim of severe injuries. 
  2. There is no scientifically valid basis proving a causal relationship between the degree of damage in a car crash depicted in accident photos and the nature and extent of a person's injuries in the collision. 
  3. The photographs are unduly prejudicial

Differences in Plaintiff's Argument In most of our cases, we want to be able to show the jury the pictures because they do impress the jury that the crash was significant, particularly if the case involves an injury that is not readily apparent on an MRI or x-ray.  But we also want to keep the photos out of evidence if they do not impress a jury about the severity of the crash. How can we have it both ways?  The scope of the pain and suffering also includes the fear and trauma of enduring an accident and seeing the damage at the scene.  But this is not an element of plaintiff's damages if the property damage is insignificant.   More Information on the Admissibility of Car Accident Photos at Trial

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