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Sims v. Pappas

Court of Appeals of Indiana

October 13, 2016

Danny Sims, Appellant-Defendant,
Andrew Pappas and Melissa Pappas, Appellees-Plaintiffs.

         Appeal from the Lake Superior Court. The Honorable William E. Davis, Judge. Cause No. 45D05-1306-CT-107

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Thomas Rosta Metzger Rosta, LLP Noblesville, Indiana

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEES Adam J. Sedia Rubino, Ruman, Crosmer & Polen Dyer, Indiana

          Shepard, Senior Judge

         [¶1] During a trial over damages caused by a drunk driver, the defendant acknowledged his intoxication and responsibility for the collision. He objected to admitting evidence about two decades-old convictions for alcohol-related offenses. The objection was overruled and the jury ultimately returned a verdict, mostly for compensatory damages.

         [¶2] While we do not embrace his proposal that prior convictions should be barred outright as they mostly would be in a criminal trial, we conclude that in this case they neither proved nor disproved any facts that were central to the main questions the jury decided - compensatory damages and loss of consortium. As they were not relevant to these issues and unfairly prejudicial (though probably not to the question of punitive damages), we reverse and order a new trial.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶3] On May 17, 2013, after working an eight-hour shift, Danny Sims left work at 7:30 a.m., played golf with friends, and then spent the afternoon and evening drinking with his son at a bar in Crown Point, Indiana. Sims consumed at least seven alcoholic beverages, including three beers and some alcoholic energy drinks. Sometime between 9 and 9:30 p.m., Sims was escorted out by two bouncers, because he fell asleep at the bar and fell when he tried to stand up from the bar stool. Sims struggled with the bouncers and accidentally struck his son in the mouth. The bouncers walked Sims to his vehicle, and Sims entered his vehicle and attempted to drive home.

         [¶4] Sims was travelling southbound on Broadway Avenue and entered the left turn lane at the intersection of 109th Avenue. Andrew Pappas was driving northbound on Broadway on his way to work.[1] Pappas approached the intersection of 109th Avenue and attempted to proceed through the intersection, as the traffic signal indicated a green light. Sims failed to yield the right-of-way and collided head-on with Pappas' vehicle.

         [¶5] Pappas was severely injured in the collision. At the time of the accident, Sims' blood alcohol content measured .18. Sims admitted being at fault and to being intoxicated at the time of the accident. In the course of criminal charges, Sims pleaded guilty to operating while intoxicated, as a Class C misdemeanor.[2] He was fined and sentenced.

         [¶6] Pappas and his wife Melissa sued Sims for personal injuries and loss of consortium, alleging negligence, recklessness, and willful and wanton misconduct. At trial, over Sims' objection, the court allowed testimony about Sims' driving record, which included a 1983 conviction for operating while intoxicated, and a 1996 conviction for reckless driving (based on a failed chemical test).[3]

         [¶7] On July 1, 2015, following a three-day trial, the jury awarded compensatory damages to Pappas and to his wife, and punitive damages to Pappas. The compensatory damages were more than ninety percent of the total.

         [¶8] After trial, Sims resisted entry of judgment on the verdict, arguing improper admission of evidence about his driving offenses, that the compensatory and punitive damages awards were excessive, and that the punitive award violated his due process rights. After a hearing, the trial court deemed Sims' written objections a motion to correct error (under Indiana Trial Rule 59), denied the motion, and entered judgment for the Pappases. This appeal followed.


         [¶9] The dispositive issue is: Whether the trial court erred by admitting evidence of Sims' decades-old prior criminal convictions for driving under the influence and reckless driving.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶10] We evaluate challenges to admission of evidence under a standard that treats the decision to admit or exclude evidence as lying within the sound discretion of the trial court, one that is afforded great deference on appeal. Bacher v. State, 686 N.E.2d 791 (Ind. 1997). We will not reverse that decision absent a showing of manifest abuse of that discretion. Strack and Van Til, Inc. v. Carter, 803 N.E.2d 666 (Ind.Ct.App. 2004). Such an abuse occurs where the trial court's decision is against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before it. Santelli v. Rahmatullah, 993 N.E.2d 167 (Ind. 2013). To determine whether reversal is required, the court considers the probable impact of the evidence upon the jury. Gibson v. Bojrab, 950 N.E.2d 347 (Ind.Ct.App. 2011). Even if we find inadmissible evidence was improperly placed before the jury, we only reverse if that error was clearly prejudicial. Morse v. Davis, 965 N.E.2d 148 (Ind.Ct.App. 2012), trans. denied.

         [¶11] Sims argues the evidence in question is inadmissible under Indiana Evidence Rules 403 and 609(b). Pappas counters the trial court properly admitted the evidence because 1) the prior convictions were probative of the reprehensibility of Sims' actions, which, according to Pappas, outweighed any prejudice; and 2) Indiana Evidence Rule 609 does not apply to the admission of the prior convictions, but instead applies only to the admissibility of certain evidence for purposes of impeaching a witness.

         [¶12] Evidence ...

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