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EVIDENCE OF PLAINTIFF’S SETTLEMENT OF A PRIOR CLAIM MAY BE ADMISSIBLE AT TRIAL

Posted by H. Lee Pruett

In Bolah v. Driskell, Case No. A12A1612 (Ga. Ct. App., Nov. 7, 2012), the Georgia Court of Appeals held that, for purposes of impeachment, a trial court has discretion to admit evidence of the amount of a prior settlement.

In this case, the plaintiff alleged injuries from a multi-vehicle accident. At trial, the plaintiff testified about injuries from a prior motorcycle accident to “distinguish” those injuries from those sustained in the accident at issue. In an attempt to minimize the prior injuries, the plaintiff testified that, even though he was knocked off the bike and went to the hospital, he only “had abdomen stuff, a little bit of trauma, you know, knee’s feeling a little bit hurt,” and that he returned to work the next day, worked without difficulty, and sought no further medical treatment. On cross examination, the defendant’s attorney sought to introduce evidence that the plaintiff had settled the prior claim for $20,000. The trial court allowed evidence of the settlement for the purpose of impeaching the plaintiff’s credibility, “given his testimony minimizing his injuries from the prior accident.” The jury returned a defense verdict. Judge Janis Gordon, State Court of DeKalb County, denied the plaintiff’s motion for new trial and entered judgment on the verdict.

On appeal, the Court acknowledged that evidence of the amount of a prior settlement is usually inadmissible as irrelevant and prejudicial. In this case, however, the trial court had discretion to allow it for impeachment, “because a jury could find that the evidence contradicted [the plaintiff’s] testimony that his injuries were not serious enough to impair his job performance or require additional medical treatment.” The Court distinguished other cases in which the trial court properly excluded evidence of prior settlements where the plaintiffs admitted the prior injuries and their effects. The lesson for defense counsel, of course, is to discover as much information as possible concerning prior injuries, claims, and settlements, including the amount. As Bolah shows, such evidence may be very effective for impeachment.

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