Jones v. Alayon, 4D12–4546.

CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)
Citation162 So.3d 360
Docket NumberNo. 4D12–4546.,4D12–4546.
PartiesCandice JONES, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Ryland Nye, Deceased, Appellant, v. Michael ALAYON, Appellee.
Decision Date08 April 2015

Walter G. Campbell and Kelley B. Stewart of Krupnick, Campbell, Malone, Buser, Slama, Hancock, Lieberman, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, for appellant.

Hinda Klein and Elizabeth A. Izquierdo of Conroy, Simberg, Ganon, Krevans, Abel, Lurvey, Morrow & Schefer, P.A., Hollywood, for appellee.



In this wrongful death action arising out of an automobile accident, the jury found the decedent at fault for his own death due to his failure to wear a seatbelt. It awarded fewer damages than the plaintiff sought. On appeal, the decedent's estate argues that the court abused its discretion in admitting hearsay that the decedent's wife spent the parties' money on drugs; abused its discretion in prohibiting the introduction of evidence that the defendant was a police officer who fled the scene; and erred in failing to direct a verdict on the seatbelt defense where the evidence was undisputed that the seatbelt was inoperable. Because the trial court ruled that the statement regarding drug use constituted an admission by a party opponent, it did not err in finding it admissible. As to the exclusion of the evidence regarding the defendant, the trial court acted within its discretion in determining that its probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Finally, the court did not err in denying the motion for directed verdict because proof of an available and operational seatbelt is not a prerequisite to asserting, as comparative negligence, the failure to use a seatbelt. We therefore affirm the final judgment.

Candice Jones, the daughter and personal representative of the Estate of Ryland Nye, brought a wrongful death action against Michael Alayon, the driver of the vehicle involved in the accident which resulted in Nye's death. Defendant rear-ended Nye's vehicle which caused Nye's car to strike a guardrail and overturn, resulting in Nye's ejection from the vehicle. Nye's death resulted either when he struck the pavement or when he was hit by other motorists thereafter. Defendant, an off-duty police officer, left the scene and later reported to police investigators that his car had been stolen. Subsequently, he admitted he lied, and at the time of the trial was incarcerated on charges relating to the accident. At trial he admitted liability for causing the accident but disputed whether his actions caused Nye's death, alleging that Nye's failure to use a seatbelt constituted comparative negligence.

Prior to the commencement of trial, the defense moved in limine to prevent admission of the fact that defendant was a police officer who fled the scene, as the defendant admitted liability for causing the accident. He claimed that its probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, as the jury might “punish” the defendant for this behavior. The estate argued this evidence was relevant to damages, because these facts increased the mental anguish of Nye's survivors. It proffered testimony from the decedent's wife that she was additionally traumatized to know that a law enforcement officer would have left her husband without trying to help or respond. The court conducted an analysis under section 90.403, Florida Statutes (2012), and determined that the probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, because the wife's main trauma was the occurrence and manner of the accident itself.

On the issue of damages to the estate and survivors, the decedent's family relationships were explored. The decedent had been married three times. Jones and her sister were his children from a former marriage, and he had an additional minor daughter from another marriage. At the time of his death he was married to Debra Nye. The complaint sought damages on behalf of the estate, his wife, and his children.

At trial, Jones testified about the family relationships. During cross-examination, defense counsel asked her whether she had ever told her sister that her father's present wife was spending a lot of his money on drugs and alcohol. Jones denied ever mentioning this. The sister did not testify at trial and resides in Tennessee. During the defense case, counsel read into evidence, over a hearsay objection by Jones, a portion of the sister's deposition in which she testified that her father had financial issues, and that Jones told her that what the wife was spending “my dad's money on was probably drugs and alcohol. She did not work.” She later reiterated that she had heard “about her [the wife's] drug use and alcohol use” from Jones. In opposing its admission, Jones argued that the sister's testimony was “hearsay on hearsay” because the sister was relaying a statement from Jones, but Jones must have been repeating statements made to her by her father. The defense argued that Jones's statements were admissions of a party opponent.

The court overruled the objection, finding that the statement was an admission of a party opponent, as Jones was the personal representative of the estate. Moreover, it was relevant to the estate's claim of lost net accumulations.

With respect to the affirmative defense of failure to wear a seatbelt, Jones presented evidence that the decedent always wore a seat belt, although he was not wearing one on the morning of the accident. His vehicle had a seat belt, but the investigating officer testified it had coins or an obstruction inside of it, which made it inoperable. In the wife's testimony, she explained that when the decedent would pay tolls on the turnpike he would take off his seat belt to get into his pocket for change. She thought that some of the coins had fallen into the belt mechanism in that way. On the Saturday before the accident, she became aware of the malfunctioning seat belt and gave the decedent some tweezers to try to get the coins out, but he was not able to do so. She understood that he was going to have to buy another belt to fix it, but the weekend intervened. The following day was a Sunday, followed by Columbus Day, and the accident occurred early in the morning on Tuesday while the decedent was on his way to work. The defense presented expert evidence that the decedent's failure to wear a seatbelt caused his death.

Plaintiff moved for a directed verdict on the seat belt defense, arguing it was legally insufficient because there was no evidence that the seat belt was operational at the time of the accident. The defense argued the initial burden was on the defense to prove the car had seat belts, at which point the burden shifted to plaintiff to demonstrate the seat belts were nonoperational. A jury question still would remain, the defense argued, as to whether there was any negligence on the part of the decedent which resulted in the belt's inoperability. The court denied the motion for a directed verdict, concluding that the issue was one for the jury. During its closing argument, the defense argued both that the plaintiff's theory of how the coins got stuck in the seat belt was not believable and that the defendant was negligent in not getting the belt fixed.

The jury returned a verdict assigning 30% fault to the defendant and 70% fault to the decedent. It awarded the estate $11,178 for funeral expenses and $40,000 in lost net accumulations; $200,000 to the wife for loss of support and services and $50,000 for pain and suffering; and awarded the minor daughter $30,000 for loss of support and services and $7,000 for pain and suffering. It awarded Jones nothing for her claim of loss of services. Jones moved for a new trial based upon the same three arguments she now makes in this appeal. The trial court denied the motion, prompting this appeal.

The first two issues involve the trial court's rulings on evidence. “A trial court's decision on the admissibility of evidence is reviewed for abuse of discretion, as limited by the rules of evidence.” Herring v. State, 132 So.3d 342, 345 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014).

Admissions of a Party Opponent

Jones claims that the trial court erred in admitting her sister's testimony as to Jones's statement that the decedent's wife was using the decedent's money to buy drugs and alcohol. She claims that this was hearsay within hearsay, because Jones's statement was relaying information given to her, but the source of that information is unknown, thus amounting to hearsay. We disagree, as the statement qualifies as an admission by a party opponent.

Section 90.803(18), Florida Statutes (2012), provides an exception to the inadmissibility of hearsay for admissions by a party:

(18) Admissions. —A statement that is offered against a party and is:
(a) The party's own statement in either an individual or a representative capacity;
(b) A statement of which the party has manifested an adoption or belief in its truth....

Admissions need not be based on firsthand knowledge by the party, the rationale being “that a witness will not make a statement against his interest unless he or she has made an adequate investigation.” Charles W. Ehrhardt, Florida Evidence, § 803.18 (2014 ed.).

Although there is some contrary authority, the established rule in Florida, and the clear majority rule throughout the country, is that an admission by a party opponent or his agent need not be based on the personal knowledge of a party or his agent. This is so because when a person or his agent speaks against his own interest, as here, or otherwise makes relevant admissions of substantial importance to himself, it may be assumed that he or his agent has made an adequate investigation so that such statements possess, even if not based on firsthand observation, a substantial indicia of reliability.

Metro. Dade Cnty. v. Yearby, 580 So.2d 186, 189 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991) (footnotes omitted). Accord, ...

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8 cases
  • Ring Power Corp. v. Condado-Perez
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • June 21, 2017
    ...admissions). However, the statements of a party need not speak directly to liability to be admissions. See, e.g. , Jones v. Alayon , 162 So.3d 360, 365 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015) (concluding that statement by party regarding how money was spent was an admission). "It is well settled that an admiss......
  • Ring Power Corp. v. Condado-Perez
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • April 7, 2017
    ...admissions). However, the statements of a party need not speak directly to liability to be admissions. See, e.g., Jones v. Alayon, 162 So. 3d 360, 365 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015) (concluding that statement by party regarding how money was spent was an admission). "It is well settled that an admissi......
  • Geico Gen. Ins. Co. v. Dixon
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • January 4, 2017
    ...sobriety is irrelevant and prejudicial. Swanson v. Robles , 128 So.3d 915, 917–18 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013) ; see also Jones v. Alayon , 162 So.3d 360 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015) ; Neering v. Johnson , 390 So.2d 742, 742 (Fla. 4th DCA 1980) (concluding the trial court erred in admitting testimony of defen......
  • Stewart v. Draleaus, s. 4D15–2320
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • July 26, 2017
    ...the chain of inference necessary to establish the material fact; and the effectiveness of a limiting instruction. Jones v. Alayon , 162 So.3d 360, 365 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015) (quoting Johnson v. State , 40 So.3d 883, 886 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010) ). This court has recognized the inflammatory effects ......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Negligence cases
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Florida Causes of Action
    • April 1, 2022
    ..., 769 So.2d 1056, 1057 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000). See also Ridley v. Safety Kleen Corp. , 693 So.2d 934 (Fla. 1996); but see Jones v. Alayon , 162 So.3d 360, 368 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015) (holding that defendants need not prove seatbelt was available and fully operational, but such information may be us......

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