ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Legal Newsline) - The Alaska Supreme Court last month reversed a lower court's ruling against an employee who lost part of his leg while working for a landscape company, citing evidence "erroneously admitted" during trial.
The Court concluded iin its June 29 opinion that the state's Third Judicial District Superior Court wrongly admitted evidence of Keith Jones' receipt of workers' compensation and social security benefits and his past drug use.
Jones worked for Titan Enterprises LLC in 2003. Before working for Titan, he worked for Great Alaska Lawn and Landscaping Inc. Todd Christianson was the sole shareholder of both corporations.
In November 2002, Great Alaska Lawn was involuntarily dissolved by the State of Alaska; also in November 2002, Christianson incorporated Titan.
In June 2003, while working for Titan, Jones was injured on a hydromulcher designed and manufactured by a predecessor corporation to Bowie Industries, based in Texas.
A hydromulcher is a piece of equipment used to seed and fertilize land for lawns and landscaping.
Christianson testified that Great Alaska Lawn owned the hydromulcher on which Jones was injured.
The accident happened when Jones used his foot to push a bale of mulch that he was feeding into the machine. As a result, his leg got caught in the machine and had to be amputated above the knee.
Jones received workers' compensation benefits for the injury and later sued the manufacturer and the owner of the machine.
After trial, a jury decided that: (1) the hydromulcher was not defective; (2) Bowie was not negligent for failing to provide reasonably adequate warnings after 1966; (3) Bowie's failure to provide reasonably adequate warnings was not a legal cause of Jones's injury; (4) Bowie was not negligent; (5) no negligence by Bowie was a legal cause of Jones's accident; (6) Great Alaska Lawn was negligent in providing the hydromulcher to Titan; (7) Great Alaska Lawn's negligence was not a legal cause of Jones's injuries; (8) Titan was negligent; (9) Titan's negligence was a legal cause of Jones's injuries; (10) Jones suffered damages of $1,123,123.00; (11) Jones failed to mitigate his economic losses; (12) Jones was negligent; and (13) Jones's negligence was a legal cause of his injury.
The jury allocated 70 percent of the fault for the injury to Jones and 30 percent to Titan.
Soon after, Jones moved for a new trial against Great Alaska Lawn and Bowie, arguing that the superior court had improperly admitted prejudicial evidence and that the weight of the evidence was against the jury's verdict.
The court denied his motion for a new trial. Jones appealed.
In its 44-page ruling, the state's high court reversed the superior court's judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.
"Because the potential for confusion of the issues was great and the evidence was not highly probative of malingering, we are convinced that admitting evidence of Jones's receipt of workers' compensation and social security benefits was a clear abuse of discretion," Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti wrote for the Court.
Admission of the drug use evidence also was harmful to Jones, the Court said.
"The trial court was cognizant that evidence of past drug use was prejudicial: It excluded the evidence before trial and ruled twice at trial that drug use evidence was more prejudicial than probative," Carpenetti explained. "The court's ruling on the motion for a new trial also suggests that it recognized that the evidence could have a prejudicial impact because it said that the evidence was admitted only for a limited purpose."
And the jury was "clearly interested" in the drug use testimony, the Court said, adding that in a note to the superior court the jury asked for clarification of the evidence.
"The jury's recommendation that the award of future economic damages be put in trust to pay for future medical expenses suggests that it used the drug use testimony for more than an assessment of Jones's future earning capacity," Carpenetti noted.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.