Beale v. Speck

Decision Date11 August 1995
Docket NumberNo. 20873,20873
PartiesMichael L. BEALE and Christine K. Beale, husband and wife, and Christine K. Beale, as parent and Guardian Ad Litem for Joshua C. Beale, a minor, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Michael SPECK and Gloria S. Speck, husband and wife, and Gregory L. Speck, Defendants-Respondents.
CourtIdaho Court of Appeals

Knowlton, Miles, Merica & Brudie, P.A., Lewiston, for respondents. Kent J. Merica argued.

WALTERS, Chief Judge.

This is an appeal from a judgment entered on a jury's award of damages to Christine, Joshua and Michael Beale in a personal injury case resulting from an automobile accident. We hold that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of an admission by a party-opponent but that the error was harmless.

[127 Idaho 525] We affirm all other determinations made by the trial court, except for the court's calculation of credit due against the judgment for payments made by the defendants' insurer. On the question of credit, we remand the case for a recalculation of the judgment.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The accident in this case occurred on September 21, 1989, when a vehicle driven by respondent Gregory Speck (Gregory), then a teenager, collided into the rear of a vehicle driven by appellant Christine Beale (Christine). Christine was stopped for on-coming traffic while attempting to make a left turn into the parking lot of a restaurant. Christine's seven year-old son, Joshua Beale (Joshua), was a passenger in Christine's vehicle.

The Beales sued Gregory Speck and his parents for damages caused by Gregory's negligence. Christine sought recovery for medical expenses, emotional trauma and lost income; Joshua sought damages for head injuries and emotional trauma; and Christine's husband, Michael Beale (Michael), sought damages for loss of consortium. The jury returned a verdict in the Beales' favor. In apportioning liability, the jury found Gregory ninety-five percent negligent and Christine five percent negligent. The jury awarded damages in the amount of $11,218 to Christine, $625.84 to Joshua, and $500 to Michael. Judgment was entered in favor of the Beales for the amounts of the verdicts reduced by five percent representing the jury's assessment of negligence on the part of Christine. Following entry of judgment, the Beales moved for a new trial or judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The motions were based on inadequate damages, juror misconduct and insufficient evidence for the jury's finding of negligence on Christine's part. The district court denied the Beales' motions.

On appeal, the Beales argue that the district court erred in granting the Specks' motion in limine to exclude evidence of Gregory's plea of guilty to the charge of following too closely. They further argue that the district court erred in denying the Beales' motions for a new trial or judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Finally, the Beales assert that the district court erred in awarding expert witness fees to the Specks and in computing the credit the Specks were to receive for payments made to the Beales prior to trial.

I. ADMISSIBILITY OF GREGORY SPECK'S GUILTY PLEA.

The record reflects that on November 2, 1989, Gregory appeared in court and entered a "plea of admission" 1 to the charge of following too closely. He was ordered to pay $38 in fines and costs. The Beales argue that the district court erred in granting the Specks' motion in limine to exclude evidence of Gregory's guilty plea. Determination of this issue requires that we reconcile two Idaho Supreme Court decisions, Koch v. Elkins, 71 Idaho 50, 225 P.2d 457 (1950), and Anderson v. City of Pocatello, 112 Idaho 176, 731 P.2d 171 (1987).

In Koch, our Supreme Court stated, "A plea of guilty to a criminal charge, which alleges facts that are in issue in a civil action, is admissible against the party entering the plea, as an admission against interest." 71 Idaho at 54, 225 P.2d at 460; see also Mattson v. Bryan, 92 Idaho 587, 448 P.2d 201 (1968). 2 In Anderson, the Court addressed Emphasizing the Court's reasoning in Anderson that defendants lack incentive to vigorously defend in cases involving traffic infractions, the district court in this case did not allow the Beales to introduce evidence of Gregory's guilty plea to the charge of following too closely. The Beales argue that Anderson is inapplicable as it addressed whether a conviction for a minor offense can act as collateral estoppel in a subsequent civil action whereas the instant case, like Koch and Mattson, addresses the admissibility of a guilty plea in a subsequent civil action. The Beales contend that Koch and Mattson are controlling and are consistent with, and unaffected by, Anderson.

                [127 Idaho 526] whether a prior criminal conviction can serve as a basis for collateral estoppel in a subsequent civil action.  112 Idaho at 182, 731 P.2d at 177.   The Court recited its holding in Mattson (and Koch ), but distinguished the issue of collateral estoppel from the issue of whether a guilty plea is admissible in a civil case as an admission against interest.  Id.  The Court then stated that "[d]efendants in actions involving criminal misdemeanors or traffic infractions may lack incentive to vigorously defend."  Id. at 184, 731 P.2d at 179.   Therefore, the Court held, "in most circumstances a conviction for a relatively minor matter such as a lesser misdemeanor, traffic infraction, or matter of like import, should not act as collateral estoppel in a subsequent civil action."  Id
                

The Beales' argument is bolstered by the following language from Anderson: "The question of whether a conviction can act as collateral estoppel in a subsequent civil action is distinct from and unaffected by the question of whether a guilty plea or conviction is admissible." Id. at 182, 731 P.2d at 177 (emphasis original). However, this language is not conclusive of the issue raised in this case. In light of Anderson's recognition that defendants charged with minor infractions lack incentive to vigorously defend, we also deem it necessary to address the impact, if any, of Anderson's reasoning on Koch's holding that guilty pleas are admissible in subsequent civil actions. In other words, should the distinction made in Anderson between convictions for minor offenses, particularly for traffic offenses, and convictions for more serious offenses be applied to preclude the admission of a guilty plea to a minor traffic offense in a subsequent civil action? 3

Courts addressing the issue of admissibility of guilty pleas to minor traffic offenses in subsequent civil litigation have taken various approaches. 4 In many jurisdictions, a plea of guilty to a traffic offense is admissible in a subsequent civil proceeding arising out of the same occurrence as an "admission against interest" or as an admission by a party-opponent. See, e.g., Durham v. Farabee, 481 So.2d 885 (Ala.1985) (failure to yield right-of-way); Kelch v. Courson, 103 Ariz. 576, 447 P.2d 550, 553 (1968) (improper left turn); Ray v. Jackson, 219 Cal.App.2d 445, 33 Cal.Rptr. 339, 343 (1963) (driving without due caution); Jacobs v. Goodspeed, 180 Conn. 415, 429 A.2d 915, 917 (1980) (following too closely); Boyd v. Hammond, 55 Del. 336, 187 A.2d 413, 416 (1963) (going through stop sign); Hunter v. Hardnett, 199 Ga.App. 443, 405 S.E.2d 286, 287 (1991) (failure to yield right-of-way); Wright v. Stokes, 167 Ill.App.3d 887, 118 Ill.Dec. 853, 856, 522 N.E.2d 308, 311 (1988) (plea of guilty to offense of crossing the center line admissible even where underlying charge has been finally dismissed after defendant has received supervision); Dept. of Public Safety v. Palmisano, 444 S.W.2d 128 (Ky.1969) (traffic citation for speeding, signed by defendant admissible in action to rescind suspension of operator's license); Arceneaux v. Domingue, 365 So.2d 1330, 1336 (La.1978) 5 (negligent operation In some jurisdictions, the admissibility of guilty pleas to traffic infractions is governed by statute. See, e.g., Carter v. Rukab, 437 So.2d 761, 762-63 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1983) (under statute decriminalizing certain minor traffic violations, admission of guilt to traffic infraction and waiver of right to hearing by payment of civil penalty or forfeiture of bond cannot be used as evidence in any other proceeding); Theriault v. Swan, 558 A.2d 369, 370 (Me.1989) (evidence of defendant's admission to traffic infraction of imprudent speeding precluded by Maine statute; therefore, not admissible as admission by party-opponent); 7 Glens Falls Group Ins. Corp. v. Hoium, 294 Minn. 247, 200 N.W.2d 189, 192 n. 2 (1972) (state statute excludes pleas of guilty in traffic matters from being admitted into evidence in civil litigation); Ryan v. Ohm, 39 Or.App. 947, 593 P.2d 1296, 1298 (1979) (Under Oregon statutes, "a guilty plea to a traffic offense, which is a crime, is admissible as an admission against interest in a subsequent civil action arising out of the same accident or occurrence. When the offense is merely a traffic infraction, however, a guilty plea is inadmissible....").

[127 Idaho 527] of automobile); Seals v. St. Regis Paper Co., 236 So.2d 388, 392 (Miss.1970) (unlawfully passing school bus); Schaefer v. McCreary, 216 Neb. 739, 345 N.W.2d 821, 825 (1984) (reckless driving); Public Service Co. v. Chancey, 94 N.H. 259, 51 A.2d 845, 846 (1947) ("Unless the record showed a plea of guilty [to operating motor vehicle while intoxicated], under our decisions it would not have been admissible to establish the truth of the facts alleged in the complaint."); Eaton v. Eaton, 119 N.J. 628, 575 A.2d 858, 866 (1990) (careless driving); Alexander v. Eldred, 100 A.D.2d 666, 473 N.Y.S.2d 864, 866 (1984) (failure to yield); Teachey v. Woolard, 16 N.C.App. 249, 191 S.E.2d 903, 906 (1972) (unspecified "traffic offense"); Dartt v. Berghorst, 484...

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  • Weaver v. City of Everett
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    ...vigorously contest cases with small or nominal damages at stake could be a reason not to apply collateral estoppel); Beale v. Speck, 127 Idaho 521, 903 P.2d 110, 119 (1995) (holding collateral estoppel for misdemeanor traffic offenses generally inappropriate); Rice v. Massalone, 554 N.Y.S.2......
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