E-Alert Case Updates
Allegation in Complaint That Car Was a Total Loss Struck, but Allegations Regarding Seatbelt Usage and Drug Charges against Defendant Were Proper
Dana Blevins, et al. v. Jacob Piatt, et al.
In a recent opinion, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland granted a motion to strike the allegation in a complaint that a vehicle was declared a total loss, but denied the motion to the extent it sought to strike allegations regarding: (1) the plaintiffs’ seatbelt usage; and (2) drug charges filed against the defendant.
On May 9, 2013, Plaintiffs, Dana Blevins and Garrett Brackins, were involved in a car accident with Defendant Jacob Piatt. As a result of the accident, Plaintiffs sued Defendant for negligence, alleging that Defendant struck a vehicle driven by a third party and then struck Plaintiffs’ vehicle. Defendant subsequently moved to strike all or part of four (4) paragraphs contained in Plaintiff’s Complaint. The allegations at issue in Defendant’s motion are underlined in the following paragraphs:
Judge Ellen L. Hollander, writing for the Court, granted, in part, and denied, in part, Defendant’s motion. With respect to the allegation that Plaintiffs’ vehicle was deemed a “total loss,” Defendant argued that: (1) the issue of property damage settled solely between the parties’ insurers; (2) a settlement made by an insurer cannot be construed as an admission of liability; and (3) because Plaintiffs did not seek property-related damages, the allegation was irrelevant. Plaintiffs responded that the evidence of physical damage was relevant to the force of the impact at issue, and that in any event, Defendant’s arguments were improper at this stage because they involved evidentiary issues.
The Court initially rejected Defendant’s argument that the evidence was not relevant, stating that “[t]he force of the impact is obviously relevant to the suit.” The Court noted, however, that an insurance company’s declaration that a vehicle is a total loss “has no bearing on the force of the impact,” and is instead “an economic decision.” Quoting extensively from both Maryland case law and secondary materials, the Court explained that the decision regarding whether a car is declared a loss involves the question of whether the repairs to the car would exceed the car’s total value. Because this issue is based on the type of damages and the market value of the car, it is not relevant to the issue of the force of the impact. Consequently, the Court granted Defendant’s motion to strike the allegation regarding the vehicle’s status as a total loss.
Defendant next contended that the allegation that Plaintiff were wearing their seatbelts was prejudicial because it made “an impermissible implication concerning the impact of or damages resulting” from the accident. The Court rejected this argument, noting that, in Maryland, contributory negligence bars a plaintiff’s recovery. Because this allegation was therefore relevant to Plaintiffs’ ability to recover damages in this case, and because the Court also concluded that the allegation was neither scandalous nor prejudicial, the Court denied Defendant’s motion to strike this allegation. The Court suggested that Defendant’s arguments regarding the admissibility of evidence regarding Plaintiffs’ seatbelt usage was more properly the subject of a motion in limine.
Finally, Defendant argued that all references to criminal charges against Defendant should be struck from the Complaint. Furthermore, he contended that the charges filed against him as a result of the accident did not include a charge that he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and thus that Plaintiffs’ allegation in that regard was without factual support and should also be struck. The Court rejected these arguments. Although it noted that “the Complaint may contain some factual details beyond those necessary to meet the pleading standards of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a),” that alone was not grounds for a motion to strike. Moreover, the Court emphasized that Defendant failed to articulate the prejudice he would suffer in having to respond to the allegations regarding criminal charges against him. Despite that Defendant may very well have arguments against the admissibility of such evidence, those were evidentiary, not pleading, issues. As such, they were not properly the subject of a motion to strike. Accordingly, the Court denied Defendant’s motion to strike those allegations.
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