Evidence of Lack of Insurance Irrelevant and Inadmissible in Negligent Hiring Claim
In Perry v. Asphalt & Concrete Services., Inc., No. 27, the Court of Appeals of Maryland was asked to determine whether evidence of insurance (or lack thereof) is admissible to establish a negligent hiring claim. The Court held that evidence of lack of insurance coverage was irrelevant and inadmissible in a negligent hiring claim where that evidence did not establish the proximate cause of the complaining party’s injuries. The Court therefore concluded that the trial court erred in admitting such evidence because it prejudiced the jury’s verdict.
On April 28, 2009, Moran Perry (“Perry”) was struck by a dump truck while crossing an intersection in Frederick, Maryland. The dump truck was driven by William Johnson, II (“Johnson”), and owned by Higher Power Trucking, LLC (“Higher Power”). Asphalt & Concrete Services, Inc. (“ACS”) had hired Higher Power to haul asphalt and stone to a church where ACS was paving a children’s play area. Perry sustained head trauma and rib fractures as a result of the accident. An investigation after the accident revealed that neither Johnson nor Higher Power had liability insurance covering the dump truck. The investigation also revealed that Johnson had a suspended drivers’ license and the registration on the truck had expired. The Court only considered the lack of insurance in its analysis.
In April 2011, Perry filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. Perry alleged negligence against Higher Power, Johnson, and ACS. Perry also alleged that ACS was negligent in its hiring and supervision of Higher Power. Perry later sought to dismiss Higher Power as a defendant after learning that Higher Power was simply a trade name under which Johnson was unlawfully operating a dump truck business. ACS filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that it did not have an employer-employee relationship with Johnson. The trial court dismissed ACS’ motion for summary judgment. Before trial, ACS filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude evidence that Johnson had a suspended drivers’ license and that the dump truck and Johnson were uninsured at the time of the accident. The trial court reserved ruling on ACS’ motion in limine.
At trial, Perry needed to establish a foundation for an employment relationship between Johnson and ACS before the Court would rule on the admissibility of the evidence of lack of insurance. Perry called Burt Maggio (“Maggio”), the president of ACS, to testify. Over ACS’s objection, Maggio read aloud a message on a fax cover sheet, in which ACS advised Higher Power that it had not yet received a certificate of liability insurance and requested that the materials be sent as soon as possible. Maggio testified that it was ACS’s policy to request that a truck operator provide a certificate of liability insurance. Maggio also testified to the nature of ACS and Higher Power’s relationship. Specifically, Maggio testified that ACS paid Higher Power hourly and that ACS did not dictate any of the specifics of Higher Power’s performance other than where to dump the materials when they arrived on the job site. Maggio also testified that ACS’s employees received a salary, health care benefits, 401(k) participation and paid holidays. Johnson did not receive any of these benefits. Based on this testimony, the trial court determined that there was enough evidence to establish a foundation as to ACS and Johnson’s employment relationship. The trial court subsequently allowed evidence of the lack of insurance to be admitted, over ACS’s objection.
At the conclusion of the case, the trial court denied Perry’s request to strike a jury instruction regarding the requirement of liability insurance. The jury subsequently returned a verdict in favor of Perry on both the negligence and negligent hiring claims. ACS appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which reversed the judgment in favor of Perry.
The basis of ACS’s appeal was (1) that the trial court admitted Johnson’s lack of insurance in violation of Maryland Rule 5-411, which prohibits the admission of evidence of insurance to prove fault or liability, and (2) the evidence was irrelevant to Johnson’s claim of negligent hiring. Perry argued that the evidence of Johnson’s lack of insurance demonstrated that ACS violated its duty to use reasonable care in hiring Johnson. On appeal, neither party disputed that Johnson’s lack of insurance was irrelevant to the issue of negligence.
The Court of Appeals first examined Maryland Rule 5-411. Under Maryland Rule 5-411, evidence that a person was or was not insured is not admissible to demonstrate whether a person acted negligently. Such evidence may be admissible, however, for the purpose of proving agency, ownership, control, or bias of a witness. Rule 5-411 is designed to prevent undue prejudice that may result when liability insurance is admitted.
Next the Court turned to the elements of a negligent hiring claim. To support such a cause of action, the Court noted, a plaintiff must prove (1) the existence of a duty owed by a defendant to him, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) a legally cognizable causal relationship between breach of duty and the harm suffered and (4) damages. To demonstrate a causal link in the context of negligent hiring, a plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) the failure of an employer to undertake a reasonable inquiry lead to the hiring and (2) the hiring was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury.
Initially, the Court determined that ACS breached its duty to Perry when it hired Higher Power/Johnson, because ACS’s failure to verify that Johnson had liability insurance constituted a failure to use reasonable care. The Court ultimately found ACS’s breach of duty to be inconsequential because ACS’s failure to verify whether Johnson had liability insurance was not the proximate cause of Perry’s injuries. Rather, Perry’s injuries were proximately caused by Johnson’s negligent driving and poor driving skills.
The Court then concluded that the trial court erred in requiring Perry to establish a foundation for an employer-employee relationship as a threshold for admitting evidence of lack of insurance.
This was an error because the inquiry in the nature of ACS and Johnson’s relationship did not address the issue of proximate cause. The trial court therefore failed to consider the proper legal standard in admitting the evidence, and as such abused its discretion.
Finally, the Court considered the prejudicial effect of the wrongly admitted evidence. ACS argued that the admission of such evidence prejudiced the jury’s assessment of liability because, in violation of Maryland Rule 5-411, it suggested to the jury that ACS was the only insured defendant. Having previously found evidence of Johnson’s lack of insurance to be irrelevant and immaterial to the claim of negligent hiring, the Court determined that the admission of that evidence probably influenced the jury in its determination of liability. Because the determination of liability was a prime issue in the case and the jury was not instructed to disregard the evidence in reaching its verdict, the Court determined that there was a reasonable probability that the jury considered the irrelevant evidence in finding ACS liable for Perry’s injuries. The Court therefore affirmed the Court of Special Appeals’ decision and remanded the case for a new trial.
Moran Perry v. Asphalt & Concrete Services, Inc., No. 27, (Court of Appeals of Maryland, March 28, 2016), available at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2016/27a15.pdf.
Submitted By: Marisa A. Trasatti and Caroline E. Willsey, Semmes, Bowen & Semmes