Landry v. Travelers Insurance Company

Decision Date29 July 1970
Docket NumberNo. B--1940,B--1940
Citation458 S.W.2d 649
PartiesRobert LANDRY, Jr., Petitioner, v. The TRAVELERS INSURANCE COMPANY, Respondent.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Seale & Stover, John H. Seale, Jasper, for petitioner.

Strong, Pipkin, Nelson, Parker & Powers, Courtlyn M. Rea, Beaumont, for respondent.

SMITH, Justice.

This is a workmen's compensation case. For convenience we shall hereinafter refer to the petitioner as plaintiff and to respondent as defendant. On the basis of a jury verdict and a stipulated wage rate, the trial court entered judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $12,343.57, payable in a lump sum. The Court of Civil Appeals reversed the trial court's judgment and remanded the cause for a new trial. 448 S.W.2d 230. We reverse the judgment of the Court of Civil Appeals and affirm that of the trial court.

February 1, 1964, five years and one month before the trial of this case, plaintiff received a conviction for a felony involving moral turpitude. The trial court excluded evidence of that conviction, on the ground that it was too remote. The Court of Civil Appeals held that this was an abuse of the trial court's discretion, and remanded the case for new trial. The only question to be decided by this Court is whether the trial court's action was an abuse of its discretion.

Plaintiff did not offer in evidence any testimony from coworkers who had witnessed the accident, and thus the jury's verdict that he incurred a compensable injury rested wholly upon the testimony of Landry and his medical witness, Dr. Lee Popejoy, Jr. Dr. Popejoy's testimony was disputed by the defendant's medical witness, Dr. Glass. During the trial the defendant's counsel was allowed to perfect a Bill of Exception, out of the presence of the jury, regarding Landry's 1964 conviction. The plaintiff testified at this time that he had been convicted of the theft and forgery of postal money orders, offenses which admittedly involve moral turpitude. His punishment was fixed at a fine of $100 and a three year probationary sentence, but on the federal probation officer's recommendation, the probation was reduced to a period of one year. The fine was paid and the probation sentence ended in 1965.

Later in the trial, out of the presence of the jury, defendant's counsel added to this Bill of Exception with a series of questions to Dr. Popejoy, a witness called by plaintiff. Counsel inquired whether, in the doctor's estimation, a man who had been convicted of theft and forgery 'would have any hesitation to falsify his complaints to win an insurance case.' The doctor replied, 'Possibly.' In response to a further question the doctor acknowledged that knowing of Landry's prior conviction would have made a difference in the way the doctor viewed Landry's history, his complaints, and in the doctor's total treatment of Landry. Plaintiff's counsel immediately offered to re-examine Dr. Popejoy, to develop in greater detail the effect that knowledge of the conviction would have had on the doctor's diagnosis, but the court excused the doctor with the statement, 'Well, I think we will let it stay like it is.' In his testimony Dr. Popejoy had stated that his diagnosis was based not only upon Landry's subjective statement of his condition, but also upon an objective test which revealed that plaintiff was experiencing back pains; the test is one by which a doctor can ascertain whether a subjective complaint is true. Dr. Glass, the defendant's medical witness, although sharply differing with Dr. Popejoy's diagnosis, conceded that the test for muscle spasm, if made, is one which indicates whether more than a simple sprain is involved; he agreed that a finding of muscle spasms is a very significant finding in any back examination.

Defendant's counsel completed his Bill of Exception by recalling Landry and developing admissions that, between 1965 and 1968, Landry had been arrested four times and convicted once for minor offenses. The defendant concedes that these arrests and the single conviction are not admissible as impeachment evidence, but contends that the 1964 conviction is admissible, and that the trial court erred in excluding that evidence. The trial court, having allowed defendant to develop fully his Bill of Exception, withheld any ruling on the admissibility of the testimony regarding Landry's 1964 conviction until all the evidence was in. At that time the trial court ruled that the evidence was inadmissible.

A witness's prior conviction of a felony is admissible as impeachment evidence, if the felony is one involving moral turpitude. Texas and New Orleans Ry. Co. v. Parry, 12 S.W.2d 997 (Tex.Comm.App.1929, holding approved); Compton v. Jay, 389 S.W.2d 639 (Tex.Sup.1965).

To that general rule is appended the exception: the prior conviction must not be too remote; that is, the conviction must have been 'sufficiently recent in time to have some bearing on the present credibility of the witness.' 1 McCormick & Ray, Texas Law of Evidence § 660 (1968 Supp.). This Court has never set an arbitrary standard by which to decide whether a particular conviction is too remote to be admitted into evidence. The defendant, relying upon York v. Glenn, 242 S.W.2d 653 (Tex.Civ.App.--Fort Worth 1951, no writ hist.), asserts that any convictions occurring less than eight to ten years prior to the civil trial are not too remote, and are admissible. See also, Bunch v. Texas Employers' Ins. Ass'n, 209 S.W.2d 657 (Tex.Civ.App.--Texarkana 1948, no writ hist.). However, we agree with the plaintiff that the better approach is outlined in Dallas County Water Control and Improvement District v. Ingram, 395 S.W.2d 834, at 840 (Tex.Civ.App.--Dallas 1965, writ ref'd n.r.e.):

'From a review of both civil and criminal cases it would appear that civil courts have generally held that such a matter depends upon circumstances presented and that the question should usually be left to the discretion of the trial judge. In exercising his discretion the trial judge has an opportunity to consider and weigh all the facts and circumstances of that particular case. Only for abuse of discretion is it held that such testimony will call for a reversal.'

In a case such as this one, in which the question for decision is whether there was an abuse of the trial court's discretion, the appellate court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court, but must rather decide whether the trial court's decision was arbitrary or unreasonable. Jones v. Strayhorn, 159 Tex. 421, 321 S.W.2d 290 (1959); Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. v. Johnson, 389 S.W.2d 645 (Tex.1965). We find cases in which the conviction was so remote as to render the evidence inadmissible as a matter of law. See, e.g., Dallas County Water Control & Improvement Dist. v. Ingram, Supra; Texas Employers' Ins. Ass'n v. Yother, 306 S.W.2d 730 (Tex.Civ.App.--Fort Worth 1957, writ ref'd n.r.e.); Bernard's Inc. v. Austin, 300 S.W. 256 (Tex.Civ.App.--Dallas 1927, writ ref'd); Bunch v. Texas Employers' Ins. Ass'n, Supra. Similarly, we can conceive of cases in which the conviction is so near in time to the civil trial as to be admissible as a matter of law. Such a situation would also deprive the trial court of any discretionary power...

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