Anderson-Wallace v. Rusk
Anderson-Wallace v. Rusk, 2021 UT App 10 (Appleby, J.)
Wallace was killed when a semi-truck mirror hit his head as he walked in the street past midnight. His body was found on the fog line of the right shoulder. He was intoxicated. His family filed a wrongful death suit seeking damages. Defendants—driver and her employer—claimed Wallace darted out into the road and that he was inside the driver’s lane when he was hit. The trial court omitted evidence that Walker’s BAC was 0.17, that he drank too often, and expert testimony on the effects of alcohol concluding that evidence would unfairly prejudice plaintiff’s case under Utah Rules of Evidence rule 403. The trial court also excluded plaintiff’s evidence of economic damages. The jury apportioned 75% of the fault to Defendants and awarded Wallace’s family $1.875 million in non-economic damages. Defendants appealed. The Utah Court of Appeals reversed, holding:
- As a matter of statutory interpretation, under Utah Code § 78A-7-118(3), an appeal to the district court from a negotiated plea in justice court does not vacate or void the judgement of the justice court. Under the plain language of the statute, the judgment persists, but may be stayed pending the defendant’s appeal to district court. If the appeal is withdrawn prior to the district court entering a final judgment, the judgment entered by the justice court remains the final judgment in the case. Accordingly, the Court remanded with instructions to reinstate Ms. Kamoe’s original judgment.
- The district court exceeded its discretion when it omitted evidence of Wallace’s BAC, his struggle with alcohol, and expert testimony regarding the effects of alcohol. First, the evidence was highly probative to the question of whether Wallace ran out into the lane of travel or whether the accident occurred on the shoulder, as well as to question of damages. Second, the evidence did not create an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis. Therefore, the danger of unfair prejudice did not substantially outweigh the highly probative value of the evidence. Finally, the exclusion of this evidence harmed the defendant.
- Practice point: Plaintiff’s counsel’s comments about Wallace’s earning capacity during closing arguments were not improper because Defendants opened the door by offering evidence of Wallace’s hourly wage during trial.