ADAMS v. YOKOOJI No. 30234.
271 P.3d 1179 (2012)
126 Haw. 420
Stephen Mitsuo ADAMS, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Patricia Marie Adams; Kristin Leilani Bush; and Patrick Keoni Bush, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Robynn M.D. YOKOOJI; Luteru Manu; State of Hawaii, Department of Transportation, Defendants-Appellees, and John Does 1-10; Jane Does 1-10; Doe Partnerships 1-10; Doe Corporations 1-10; and Doe Governmental Agencies 1-10, Defendants.
Intermediate Court of Appeals of Hawai`i.
January 13, 2012.
Vladimir Devens (Meheula & Devens LLP), Gerard A. Jervis , on the briefs, for plaintiffs-appellants.
Robin M. Kishi , Caron M. Inagaki , Deputy Attorneys General, on the briefs, for defendant-appellee State of Hawaii, Department of Transportation.
NAKAMURA, C.J., FOLEY and FUJISE, JJ.
Opinion of the Court by FOLEY, J.
In this case arising out of a personal injury lawsuit, Plaintiffs-Appellants Stephen Mitsuo Adams, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Patricia Marie Adams (Adams); Kristin Leilani Bush; and Patrick Keoni Bush (collectively, Plaintiffs) assert an interlocutory appeal from the Order Re: Admissibility of Evidence (Order Re: Admissibility) filed December 8, 2009 in the Circuit Court of the First Circuit
On appeal, Plaintiffs argue that the circuit court's Order Re: Admissibility was "internally inconsistent" because by permitting DOT to introduce its proffered evidence regarding the lighting of the highway, the circuit court in effect was allowing DOT to introduce evidence pointing to the actions of a settled defendant as the legal cause of the accident. Plaintiffs contend the circuit court erred when it interpreted and applied Act 300 to allow a non-settled defendant to introduce evidence at trial that would blame the
This case arises out of an accident in which Adams, who was a pedestrian, was struck and killed by a car, driven by Yokooji, on the night of October 28, 2005. Taxi driver Manu had dropped Adams off on Kalanianaole Highway in Kailua. As Adams crossed the highway to catch a bus to her destination in Waimanalo, Yokooji's car struck Adams. Adams died from her injuries the next day.
On August 23, 2007, Plaintiffs filed a civil complaint (Complaint) in circuit court against Manu, Yokooji, and DOT. Specific to DOT, Plaintiffs alleged, in relevant part:
On September 19, 2007, DOT filed an answer, in which DOT denied negligence and causation and asserted, inter alia, the affirmative defense that the other defendants and Adams were negligent and it was their negligence that was the proximate/ legal cause of the accident. DOT also filed a cross-claim for indemnification and contribution against Manu and Yokooji.
Plaintiffs negotiated settlements with Yokooji and Manu. Pursuant to HRS § 663-15.5, the circuit court granted Plaintiffs' respective petitions for determination that the parties had negotiated the settlements in good faith.
On July 16, 2009, Plaintiffs filed their Motion in Limine No. 1 to Preclude Evidence of the Liability of the Settled/Dismissed Defendants (Motion in Limine No. 1). Plaintiffs argued that DOT was precluded, pursuant to HRS § 663-15.5, from introducing evidence to establish or infer liability or negligence of the Settled Defendants. On August 6, 2009, the circuit court held a hearing on the motion. The circuit court discussed Troyer v. Adams, 102 Haw. 399, 77 P.3d 83 (2003), for the proposition that the Settled Defendants were no longer joint tortfeasors and could not be held liable in tort to Plaintiffs or other defendants at trial. Therefore, reasoned the circuit court, there would be no apportionment of liability issue at trial. Based on that logic, the circuit court stated that DOT "is precluded by Troyer versus Adams from using a empty-chair defense."
On September 3, 2009, the circuit court entered an order granting Plaintiffs' Motion in Limine No. 1; the court specifically ordered that DOT "will be precluded at trial from introducing evidence for the sole purpose of establishing the liability of the settled Defendants [Yokooji] and [Manu]."
The bench trial began on September 16, 2009. A dispute immediately arose over whether DOT could introduce evidence regarding lighting. Plaintiffs argued that such evidence violated the circuit court's order prohibiting the empty chair defense. The circuit court allowed DOT to proceed, as long as the intent of the evidence was to establish causation. After DOT finished its opening statement, the circuit court stayed the proceedings to allow Plaintiffs time to file a motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal to this court on this issue.
On December 10, 2009, Plaintiffs filed their interlocutory appeal to this court.
A. Interlocutory Appeal
Jou v. Dai-Tokyo Royal State Ins. Co., 116 Haw. 159, 163, 172 P.3d 471, 475 (2007).
B. Evidentiary Ruling
The appellate court applies "two different standards of review in addressing evidentiary issues. Evidentiary rulings are reviewed for abuse of discretion, unless application of the rule admits of only one correct result, in which case review is under the right/wrong standard." State v. Ortiz, 91 Haw. 181, 189, 981 P.2d 1127, 1135 (1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
C. Statutory Interpretation
During Plaintiffs' opening statement, they outlined their plans to offer evidence of DOT'S negligence in its maintenance of lighting, traffic signals, and crosswalk signage in the area of the accident, alleging that DOT'S negligence caused the accident. In particular, Plaintiffs stated that "[i]t was very dark," making it hard for Yakooji to see Adams.
DOT stated in its opening statement its intent to rebut Plaintiffs' contention by producing evidence to show that lighting was not
When DOT stated it would be calling as a witness Helen Rasay (Rasay), who had been driving on the highway behind Yakooji and had seen Adams crossing the road, Plaintiffs again objected, complaining that this testimony "solely points the finger at" Yokooji by implying that if Rasay had seen Adams, Yokooji should have seen Adams. The circuit court overruled Plaintiffs' objection. DOT then indicated it would present expert testimony regarding "line of sight,"
DOT argued that if it were not permitted to present this evidence, it would not be able to adequately defend itself on the lighting issue. Plaintiffs responded by arguing:
Counsel for both parties then had the following exchange with the circuit court:
The circuit court's Order Re: Admissibility provided:
(Strikeout in original.)
In 2001, the Hawai`i Legislature passed Act 300, codified as HRS § 663-15.5,
H. Stand. Comm. Rep. No. 1230, in 2001 House Journal, at 1599.
"[T]he term `joint tortfeasors' means two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, whether or not judgment has been recovered against all or some of them." HRS § 663-11 (1993). In the context of multi-party litigation, a good faith settlement reached under HRS § 663-15.5 impacts both settled and non-settled joint tortfeasors:
Troyer, 102 Hawai`i at 403, 77 P.3d at 87. Thus, pursuant to HRS § 663-15.5(a)(3), DOT, the remaining alleged joint tortfeasor in this case, if found liable, cannot pursue contribution
The question before this court is whether a non-settled party may introduce evidence at trial that would point to the settled defendant as the cause of the accident, in spite of the fact that the settled defendant had made a good faith settlement. We conclude that a good faith settlement made pursuant to HRS § 663-15.5 does not preclude a defendant from introducing evidence that it was not the cause of the accident even though this evidence will logically point the finger at someone or something else, including a defendant who settled in good faith.
It is well-settled that plaintiffs have the burden of proving the elements of a negligence action—duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. Takayama v. Kaiser Found. Hosp., 82 Haw. 486, 498-99, 923 P.2d 903, 915-16 (1996). Regarding causation, an actor's negligent conduct is the
Plaintiffs intend to present evidence at trial that DOT'S negligent acts or omissions brought about the death of Adams. On the other hand, DOT contends it is not a joint tortfeasor and intends to argue that "evidence that something or someone other than [DOT] caused the accident" and this evidence "is relevant to show that [DOT] did not cause the accident." DOT argues that in order to put on a defense, it must be able to introduce evidence regarding the lighting to show that insufficient lighting was not the cause of the accident, logically implying that the driver's inattentiveness, not bad lighting, was the cause. In essence, DOT intends to put forth a general denial that its negligence was a proximate cause of the accident, which will necessarily infer that the accident was the result of some other causative factor.
In Leonardi v. Loyola University of Chicago, 168 Ill.2d 83, 212 Ill.Dec. 968, 658 N.E.2d 450 (1995), the decedent suffered irreversible brain damage shortly after giving birth and died several years later. Id. at 453-54. Plaintiffs filed suit against the hospital and several physicians. Id. at 454. Plaintiffs settled with one defendant before trial, and that defendant was dismissed from the case. Id. Before trial, plaintiffs filed a motion in limine seeking to bar the introduction of evidence of alleged negligence of anyone other than the non-settling defendants. Id. at 455. The trial court denied the motion and allowed evidence regarding the settled defendant's duties and responsibilities. Id. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the remaining defendants, and plaintiffs appealed. Id. at 454. On appeal, plaintiffs argued that defendants' general denial of negligence was not enough to raise the sole proximate cause defense, but the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed and reasoned:
Id. at 455. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the trial court's decision, explaining that
Id. at 459.
In Nolan v. Weil-McLain, 233 Ill.2d 416, 331 Ill.Dec. 140, 910 N.E.2d 549 (2009), plaintiff filed a negligence complaint against several companies, alleging the decedent developed cancer after exposure to asbestos-related products. Id. at 550. All the defendants but one settled or were dismissed before trial. Id. The trial court "excluded evidence which defendant wished to present to rebut plaintiff's claims and to support [defendant's] sole proximate cause defense." Id. at 559. The jury found in favor of plaintiff, and defendant appealed. Id. at 554. The appellate court affirmed, id., but the Illinois Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial, finding that it was error to exclude "evidence of alternative causes for decedent's injuries, improperly preventing defendant from supporting its
Ready v. United/Goedecke Services, Inc., 238 Ill.2d 582, 345 Ill.Dec. 574, 939 N.E.2d 417 (2010), arose from a construction accident where the decedent was killed during a pipe-refitting project when a scaffolding truss fell eight stories and struck him in the shoulder. Id. at 418. Plaintiff settled with the general contractor and the employer and went to trial against the subcontractor. Id. Before trial, plaintiff filed motions in limine to exclude evidence regarding the conduct of the settled defendants, arguing, inter alia, that her good-faith settlement prevented the jury from apportioning fault. Id. at 418-19. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion to exclude evidence of the settled defendants' negligence, reasoning that the defendants had settled in good faith. Id. at 419-20. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff. Id. at 420. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court held, pursuant to the Nolan and Leonardi decisions, that the trial court erred when it excluded evidence to support defendant's sole proximate cause defense. Id. at 422-23. The supreme court reiterated its reasoning in Leonardi that "an answer which denies that an injury was the result of or caused by the defendant's conduct is sufficient to permit the defendant, in support of its position, to present evidence that the injury was the result of another cause." Ready, 345 Ill.Dec. 574, 939 N.E.2d at 421 (quoting Leonardi, 212 Ill.Dec. 968, 658 N.E.2d at 455).
Turning to Hawai`i case law, we conclude that neither Troyer nor Doe Parents No. 1 v. State of Hawai`i, Dep't of Educ., 100 Haw. 34, 58 P.3d 545 (2002), stands for the proposition that DOT is prohibited from putting forth an empty chair defense.
Troyer arose out of a malpractice case in which two of the three defendants settled. 102 Hawai`i at 403-04, 77 P.3d at 87-88. Pursuant to HRS § 663-15.5, plaintiff petitioned the court for an order determining that the settlements were made in good faith, thereby barring any other joint tortfeasor from asserting claims against the settled parties for contribution. Troyer, 102 Hawai`i at 404-05, 77 P.3d at 88-89. The non-settling defendant objected, contending he was entitled to contribution from the settled defendants. Id. at 406-07 & 431, 77 P.3d at 90-91 & 115. Troyer provides guidance to the trial court for analyzing whether a settlement was made in good faith, but makes no statement regarding the evidence a non-settling defendant may present in court during trial. The issue in Troyer was not whether evidence can be presented during trial as to a non-settling party's liability; rather, the issue was whether the settling parties met the criteria for settling in good faith. Id. at 425-26, 77 P.3d at 109-10.
Doe Parents No. 1 is also inapposite to the instant case. Doe Parents No. 1 arose out of a case involving a State of Hawai`i Department of Education (DOE) teacher who sexually molested two students. Id. at 55, 58 P.3d at 566. The trial court dismissed with prejudice plaintiffs' claims against the teacher. Id. at 41, 58 P.3d at 552. The supreme court, in a footnote, explained that because the teacher had been dismissed from the case, he was no longer a joint tortfeasor pursuant to HRS § 663-11 and, as a result, the trial court could not apportion liability pursuant to HRS § 663-10.9. Doe Parents No. 1, 100 Hawai`i at 87 n. 50, 58 P.3d at 598 n. 50. Doe Parents No. 1 does not stand for the proposition that a defendant is prohibited from establishing that someone other than defendant caused the injury.
Adopting the reasoning set forth in the Illinois cases, we conclude DOT is not precluded from introducing evidence that its negligence was not the cause of the accident even though this evidence will logically point the finger at someone or something else as the causative factor.
We affirm that portion of the Order Re: Admissibility of Evidence filed on December 8, 2009 in the Circuit Court of the First Circuit ordering that DOT may introduce evidence relating to the lighting of the highway. We vacate any portion of the Order Re: Admissibility of Evidence inconsistent with this opinion and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
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