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Collier v Montalvo, et al (COA – UNP 9/23/2021; RB #4321)

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Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #353176; Unpublished
Judges Beckering, Shapiro, and Swartzle; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion


STATUTORY INDEXING:
Not Applicable

TOPICAL INDEXING:
Evidentiary Issues
Negligence-Duty


SUMMARY:
In this unanimous unpublished per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment of no cause of action entered after a jury trial in Plaintiff Vicki Collier’s third-party action against Defendant Lindsay Montalvo. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in denying Collier’s motion for a directed verdict and JNOV because, given Collier’s and Montalvo’s conflicting accounts of how the crash happened, there was a question of fact as to whether Montalvo was operating her vehicle negligently at the time of the crash.

Vicki Collier was attempting to turn left into a Rite Aid parking lot from a middle turn lane between six lanes of traffic when her vehicle was struck by Lindsay Montalvo’s. Collier and Montalvo both presented drastically different accounts of how the crash occurred: Montalvo claimed that she had been heading eastbound, then maneuvered into the middle turn lane in an attempt to turn left into the parking lot. In order to do so, she would have to cross three westbound lanes of traffic: two normal lanes of travel and a right-turn lane. She claimed the traffic in the two normal westbound lanes of travel was backed up and that the vehicles backed up in those lanes stopped to let her execute her turn into the parking lot. She claimed she had almost completed her turn into the parking lot when Collier, who was in the westbound right-turn lane crashed into the rear passenger side of her vehicle.

Collier, conversely, claimed that there was no traffic backed up in the westbound lanes of traffic at the time of the crash, and that Montalvo simply turned in front of her unexpectedly. At trial, Collier sought to admit as demonstrative evidence an illustration from the Michigan Secretary of State’s publication, What Every Driver Must Know, depicting a similar roadway configuration and laying out hypothetical right-of-way analyses. The trial court ordered that the illustration be excluded, however, because it would confuse the jury.

At the conclusion of trial, Collier moved for a directed verdict, arguing that, regardless of whether her account or Montalvo’s account of the crash were to be believed, no reasonable jury could find that Montalvo was not negligent. If Montalvo were to be believed, then she “made a blind left turn because she could not have seen if there was oncoming traffic behind the two stopped cars in the westbound lanes of travel that waved her through.” If Collier were to be believed, then Montalvo clearly and blatantly failed to yield to her the right-of-way. The trial court denied Collier’s motion and turned the issue over to the jury, which ultimately found that Montalvo was not negligent. The trial court also denied Collier’s posttrial motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denials, holding that the trial court did not err in denying Collier’s motion for a directed verdict and JNOV, noting that there were “multiple factual disputes in this case and that the jury was free to believe in whole or in part any witness testimony.” The jury was entitled to believe that Collier was not in the right-turn lane when Montalvo began her turn, and only switched into that lane after Montalvo had almost reached the parking lot. In other words, the jury was entitled to believe Montalvo’s contention that Collier “abruptly entered the right-turn lane” after the other westbound drivers stopped to allow Montalvo to turn into the parking lot, and after Montalvo actually began executing her turn.

“Plaintiff’s argument presents two clear-cut versions of events, but this overlooks the multiple factual disputes in this case and that the jury was free to believe in whole or in part any witness testimony. See Adkins v Home Glass Co, 60 Mich App 106, 111; 230 NW2d 330 (1975) (‘It is fundamental that the fact finder may accept in part and reject in part the testimony of any witness.’). In addition to the traffic conditions, there was a factual question regarding whether plaintiff’s vehicle was in the right-turn lane to be seen when defendant looked and then crossed that lane into the pharmacy driveway. The jury was presented with defendant’s testimony that she looked into the right-turn lane and did not see any other cars in that lane, and with plaintiff’s testimony that she had been in the right-turn lane for about 10 seconds and did not see defendant’s car until it turned ‘just in front’ of her before the accident occurred. If the jury credited defendant’s testimony, it could have found that defendant properly checked for oncoming vehicles and did not see any before proceeding through the right-hand turn lane. The jury could have also discredited plaintiff’s testimony and found instead that she abruptly entered the right-turn lane just before defendant completed her turn, which is why defendant did not see her when defendant proceeded onward. There was also a dispute regarding the exact location of defendant’s vehicle at the time of the crash because plaintiff disputed defendant’s testimony that she was 95 percent into the pharmacy driveway. Plaintiff contends that this factual question was also not material, but how close defendant was to completing the turn was relevant to the reasonableness of her actions.”

The Court of Appeals also held that the trial court did not err in excluding the illustration Collier sought to admit as demonstrative evidence. Specifically, the Court of Appeals held that the illustration, even though it depicted a similar roadway configuration, “was not representative of the actual circumstances of the accident in this case, and was also cumulative of other more accurate information about the intersection.” For instance, the illustration did not depict a right-turn lane such as that in which the subject crash occurred, nor did it depict the traffic conditions as described by either party. Furthermore, the Court held that any error in excluding the illustration was harmless, because “the parties presented their own demonstrative diagrams depicting the roadway and their versions of the surrounding traffic, and the trial court instructed the jury on the parties’ respective duties of care.” Thus, it was within the range of principled outcomes for the trial court to exclude the illustration based on its determination that (1) the illustration did not depict the actual circumstances of the crash, and (2) the illustration would have been cumulative of the parties’ other demonstrative exhibits which actually did.

“We agree with the trial court that Figure 4.7 was not representative of the actual circumstances of the accident in this case, and was also cumulative of other more accurate information about the intersection, and thus could lead to juror confusion. Although Figure 4.7 depicts a five-lane road with a middle turn lane like the instant case, it does not include a right-turn lane, which is where the accident at issue in this case occurred. Moreover, Figure 4.7 depicts two lanes of approaching traffic in the oncoming lanes. According to defendant’s testimony, the cars in the two westbound travel lanes had stopped and allowed her to proceed through, and she was able to determine that there were no approaching vehicles in the right-turn lane as she proceeded through into the Rite Aid driveway. Conversely, plaintiff denied that there were any vehicles in the two westbound travel lanes. Thus, Figure 4.7 does not accurately depict the conditions described by either of the parties. Therefore, despite some similarities between Figure 4.7 and the circumstances in the instant case, the trial court did not err when it found that the introduction of this exhibit could confuse the jury.

In addition, the caption to Figures 4.6 and 4.7 discusses the need to watch out for ‘hidden’ cars as one proceeds. That defendant had an initial duty to yield to oncoming traffic was explained to the jury during jury instructions. Moreover, the parties presented their own demonstrative diagrams depicting the roadway and their versions of the surrounding traffic, and the trial court instructed the jury on the parties’ respective duties of care. It was reasonable for the trial court to find that Figure 4.7, in addition to not being an accurate depiction of the actual location and conditions surrounding the accident, would have been cumulative of the parties’ other demonstrative exhibits. As such, the trial court’s decision to exclude Figure 4.7 was not outside the range of principled outcomes. Further, considering that the parties were able to present their theories of the accident through their own demonstrative exhibits, the exclusion of this exhibit did not affect plaintiff’s substantial rights. Therefore, any error was harmless. MCR 2.613(A) (‘An error in the . . . exclusion of evidence . . . is not a ground for granting a new trial . . . unless refusal to take this action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice.’). See also Ykimoff v W A Foote Mem Hosp, 285 Mich App 80, 103; 776 NW2d 114 (2009).”


Lansing car accident lawyer Stephen Sinas is the lead editor of the appellate case summaries published on this site regarding the Michigan auto insurance law. To learn more about how Stephen Sinas and how the Sinas Dramis Law Firm can help you if you have been injured in a Michigan auto accident, visit SinasDramis.com.

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