Utah SC grants new trial in suit over deadly high-speed chase

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jun 15, 2012



SALT LAKE CITY (Legal Newsline) - The Utah Supreme Court, in a ruling last week, said a negligence lawsuit filed against a city and a police officer, as a result of a deadly high-speed chase, can proceed.

The Court, in its June 8 opinion, ruled that a trial court abused its discretion when it refused to grant Wonzie Barrientos' motion for a new trial.

Barrientos was 18 months old when her mother, Jessica Nelson, was killed in a car accident -- the result of a high-speed chase in which an Ogden City police officer pursued a car that crashed into Nelson's.

Barrientos, through Theresa Nelson, sued the police officer, Matt Jones, and Ogden City for negligence.

Ogden City defended the case on the ground that it had governmental immunity and, if it did not, that it was not negligent.

Ogden City won at trial. The plaintiff moved for a new trial.

The trial court denied her motion. In turn, she appealed to the state's high court.

The Court, in its 4-1 ruling, reversed the lower court's decision and remanded the case for a new trial, mainly city the behavior of Ogden City's lawyer.

Heather S. White violated orders in limine by asking "inflammatory" questions that "served no purpose" other than to create prejudice, the majority said.

The orders in limine were granted to prevent the introduction of any evidence attacking Jessica Nelson's character because any such evidence was irrelevant to the fact that she was killed.

In particular, the orders blocked evidence that Jessica might have been "hooking" or looking for drugs on the night of the accident.

The lower court also granted orders excluding evidence concerning the lack of stability in her childhood and the toxicology report indicating Jessica was using drugs the night of the accident.

However, at trial, White repeatedly asked questions regarding these "forbidden" topics.

Justice Ronald E. Nehring, who authored the majority's opinion, called her conduct "indefensible."

"The essential issue before the jury was whether Ogden City was negligent in pursuing a high-speed chase. Jessica's presence in the intersection was tragic and random. What she was doing in the intersection was irrelevant, what she had been doing that night was irrelevant, and any prior life history of either Jessica or Mr. (Philemon) Ellis was irrelevant," Nehring wrote.

"The questioning therefore could not have served any relevant purpose. Instead, the evidence served only to prejudice the jury."

But Ogden City argued that the questioning was relevant to the damages to which the plaintiff was entitled.

The Court majority disagreed.

"Whether Mr. Ellis and Jessica were engaged in prostitution, or looking for drugs, or simply driving around in the moonlight, in no way bears on the issues to be decided at the trial," Nehring wrote. "At most, Ogden City could only hope to reduce plaintiff's damages by making Jessica a less sympathetic character."

And even if the city's line of questioning were "somehow relevant" to the plaintiff's damages, the majority said the probative value was "substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice" and therefore should have remained excluded.

The majority also concluded that the city's vehicle pursuit policy did not comply with state code, and the city is therefore not granted immunity.

However, it declined to conclude that the city was negligent.

"We conclude only that Ogden City did not have immunity by virtue of its policy. Whether it had immunity under some other policy is a question that will be determined if Exhibit D-101 is authenticated and admitted," Nehring explained.

"If Ogden City did not have immunity, the question of whether it was 'at fault' is a factual question for the jury."

Justice Thomas R. Lee, the lone dissenter, agreed that Ogden City's attorney asked "objectionable" questions at trial. However, he deferred to the trial court's finding that "no substantial prejudice resulted from those questions" and affirmed its denial of the motion for new trial.

"We are in no position to make a de novo analysis of the effect of an isolated line of questioning on the fairness of a five-day trial," he wrote.

As to the city's policy, Lee believed it complies with state code and that the city qualifies for a privilege under its terms.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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