Typically, the thought of conceding liability in a negligence suit runs counter to conventional legal strategy. In fact, attorneys often spend considerable time trying to counteract even banal admissions that occur prior to formal litigation that could be construed as declarations of liability. However, a recent case coming from Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals demonstrates how a proactive admission of guilt can occasionally work in a defendant’s favor.
In Swanson v. Robles, the Second District Court of Appeals held that allowing evidence of a defendant’s drug use during the first phase of a trial when the defendant had already admitted liability for both compensatory and punitive damages was reversible error. The case arose from a traffic accident in October 2008. A truck being driven by the defendant struck a vehicle owned by the City of Tampa and a city employee who was unloading traffic counters at the rear of the vehicle. The city employee died immediately following the collision, and his estate brought a wrongful death action against the driver, seeking both compensatory damages for the deceased’s widow and compensatory and punitive damages for the estate. The defendant brought a motion to bifurcate the trial, so that evidence of his drug use (Xanax, methadone, and marijuana) would not be admitted and prejudice the jury. In light of his admission of liability, the defendant argued that such evidence was no longer probative with respect to determining whether or not he was liable for compensatory damages and punitive damages or for determining the amount of compensatory damages. The evidence was not excluded, and the defendant brought an appeal, arguing that permitting the evidence was in error.
The Second District Court of Appeal agreed. The Court found that, since the defendant had conceded liability with respect to both compensatory and punitive damages, evidence of his drug use was no longer relevant for determining liability for either sort of damages or with respect to determining the amount of compensatory damages. Although compensatory damages include “pain and suffering,” the court held that possible knowledge of drug use was not probative for determining the amount of damages reflecting loss of companionship and protection. In addition, the court held that, while evidence of drug use may be probative with respect to determining the amount of punitive damages, the amount of those damages would be handled in the second stage of the bifurcated trial, and thus the evidence of the drug use only served to inflame the jury during the first stage and lead to a possibly higher assessment of compensatory damages.