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Sims v. Pappas

Supreme Court of Indiana

May 11, 2017

Danny Sims, Appellant (Respondent below),
v.
Andrew Pappas and Melissa Pappas, Appellees (Petitioners below).

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

         On Petition To Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 45A03-1509-CT-1424

          Attorneys for Appellant Thomas E. Rosta Tammy J. Meyer Metzger Rosta, LLP Noblesville, Indiana

          Attorney for Amicus Curiae Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana Donald B. Kite, Sr. Wuertz Law Office, LLC Indianapolis, Indiana

          Attorneys for Appellees Adam J. Sedia Michael E. Polen, Jr. Rubino, Ruman, Crosmer & Polen Dyer, Indiana

          Attorney for Amicus Curiae Indiana Trial Lawyers Association Richard A. Cook Yosha Cook & Tisch Indianapolis, Indiana

          Rucker, Justice

         In this personal injury case arising out of an automobile collision we explore among other things whether and under what circumstances a drunk driver's prior alcohol-related driving convictions can be introduced into evidence.

         Facts and Procedural History[1]

         On May 17, 2013, Andrew Pappas was driving to work in Crown Point, Indiana, when his car collided head-on with a car driven by Danny Sims. In consequence Pappas sustained serious injuries which we discuss later in this opinion. At this point, suffice it to say Sims was driving home from a bar where he had become intoxicated after drinking several alcoholic beverages. Sims' blood alcohol content was .18%, which was over twice the legal limit of .08%.[2] Sims was arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while intoxicated as a class C misdemeanor.

         Pappas filed a complaint against Sims on June 13, 2013. The complaint asserted theories of negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and willful and wanton misconduct. Pappas' wife Melissa joined the complaint on a loss of consortium claim.[3]

         During pre-trial discovery, and responding to requests for admissions, Sims admitted "that at the time of the crash, [he was] operating [his] vehicle while intoxicated." Appellant's App. at 43. When asked to admit or deny that "in 1996, you failed a chemical test and as a result entered in to a Stipulated Plea Agreement wherein you plead guilty to Reckless Driving, " and "in 1983, your driver's license was suspended for Operating While Intoxicated and Leaving the Scene of the Accident-Injury/Death/Entrapment, " Sims objected on grounds of relevance but noted, "[w]ithout waving said objection, Defendant responds: Admit." Appellant's App. at 45. Also, Sims filed a pre-trial motion in limine seeking to exclude various items of evidence.[4] The trial court granted the motion in part, denied it in part, and withheld ruling until trial in part, including on those portions of the motion seeking to exclude evidence that "Sims may have been involved in prior or subsequent automobile accidents"; evidence of "Sims's driving record"; and "[e]vidence of Defendant's financial status." See Appellant's App. at 14-16.

         A jury trial began June 29, 2015. In his opening statement, Sims admitted that he was "at fault" for the collision and that he was intoxicated at the time. Tr. at 47. During his case-in-chief Pappas moved to introduce into evidence Sims' Bureau of Motor Vehicles driving record through the testimony of the investigating police officer. Sims objected arguing among other things the document was "more prejudicial than probative." Tr. at 98. After entertaining extended arguments on both sides, and not specifically responding to Sims' prejudice/probative contention, the trial court overruled the objection on grounds that Sims had admitted the violation contained in the BMV record in response to the requests for admissions.

         At the close of trial the jury returned a verdict for Pappas in the amount $1, 444, 000.00 for compensatory damages and returned a verdict for his wife Melissa in the amount of $373, 500.00 for her loss of consortium claim. The jury also awarded Pappas punitive damages in the amount of $182, 500.00 for a total award of two million dollars. Sims filed a written "Motion Objecting to Entry of Judgment on the Jury's Verdict, " contending: (1) the evidence regarding his prior convictions was improperly admitted; (2) the award of punitive damages is excessive and constitutes a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) the verdict is unsupported by the evidence and is excessive. App. at 21. After taking the matter under advisement the trial court treated the objection as a Motion To Correct Error. It then denied the motion and entered judgment on the jury's verdict.

         Sims appealed raising the following restated claims: (1) the trial court improperly admitted evidence of Sims' prior criminal convictions; (2) the jury's award of compensatory damages is excessive and unsupported by the evidence; and (3) the jury's award of punitive damages is excessive and unsupported by the evidence.

         In a divided opinion the Court of Appeals found the first claim dispositive, reversed the trial court's judgment, and remanded this cause for retrial. In so doing the court concluded Sims' prior alcohol-related convictions in 1983 and 1996 "neither proved nor disproved any facts that were central to the main questions the jury decided-a compensatory damages and loss of consortium." Sims v. Pappas, 61 N.E.3d 1285, 1286 (Ind.Ct.App. 2016). Having previously granted transfer we now affirm the judgment of the trial court. Additional facts are set forth below.

         Discussion

         This Court generally reviews "a trial court's ruling on a motion to correct error for an abuse of discretion." Santelli v. Rahmatullah, 993 N.E.2d 167, 173 (Ind. 2013). Further, a trial court is afforded broad discretion in ruling on the admissibility of evidence. Turner v. State, 953 N.E.2d 1039, 1045 (Ind. 2011). We will disturb the trial court's ruling only where the challenger shows the trial court has abused that discretion. Id. "An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's decision is clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before it." Id.

         I. Relevance of Prior ...


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