JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) – An attorney’s inadvertent introduction of evidence could end up costing Ford Motor Company, based on a ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court. The case involves a fiery accident that killed a state trooper and seriously injured another man in a squad car built by Ford.
Sate trooper Michael Newton had pulled Michael Nolte over for a traffic violation in May 2003, and the two were in Newton’s squad car when it was rear-ended by another vehicle and exploded. Newton’s and Nolte’s families claimed the explosion was caused by a defect in Newton’s Ford-built vehicle. The plaintiffs were allowed to mention four previous similar accidents, but not six others that occurred after the incident in question.
During the trial, Ford’s attorney inadvertently introduced into evidence the other six accidents. Ford’s attorney advised the court about the inadvertent testimony but did not ask for it to be stricken from the record and did not object when the plaintiffs’ attorney asked a Ford safety expert about the 11 accidents during cross examination.
But Ford’s attorney objected when the plaintiffs’ attorney brought up the 11 accidents during closing arguments and the trial court sustained the objection. Ford was found not liable for the accident.
The trial court admitted it erred in prohibiting both sides from discussing the 11 accidents because Ford had injected the additional accidents into the case, but the court ruled the miscue was not prejudicial and overruled the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial.
In a unanimous decision, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the trial court and ruled taht the mistake was prejudicial.
“This later appellate review also is influenced by whether the party benefiting from the trial court’s mistake leaves well enough alone or uses the mistake to its advantage,” the court wrote. “Here, Ford did not leave well enough alone. … Ford points out that, although barred from discussing all 11 of the post-upgrade accidents, plaintiffs were able to present evidence regarding the four post-upgrade collisions that occurred before the Newton accident. In the context of the evidence, the logic of this argument is tenuous. Ford’s contention is that each of these accidents is an isolated and random incident. That explanation is plausible when it pertains to only four accidents. Eleven accidents may strain credulity.”