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Attorney’s Violation of Court’s Limine Order Requires New Trial

The Utah Supreme Court ordered a new trial in a lawsuit that charged negligence on the part of Ogden City and one of its police officers in the death of a woman as a result of a high speed chase. The Court found that improper questioning by the defendant’s counsel prejudicially impacted the jury’s determination of the question of liability.

The appeal by the estate of Jessica Nelson, 21, came after the jury found that neither Ogden City nor officer Matt Jones were negligent. Jessica and her passenger, Philemon “Bob” Ellis, 62, were instantly killed on December 12, 2005, after their car was broadsided by a car driven by Eddie Bustos.

Bustos plowed into the side of Nelson’s car at a speed of about 80 miles per hour at about 3 a.m. He was being chased in hot pursuit by Jones. Approximately seven minutes before the accident, Jones began pursuing Bustos after he made a visit to a suspected “drug house.” Believing Bustos had violated several traffic laws, Jones activated his overhead lights to pull Bustos over.

Bustos, however, did not stop then or when Jones activated his siren. The chase lasted 7 minutes and went through ten intersections with five traffic lights. Jones was ordered twice by his supervisor to terminate the chase. The first time Jones did not hear the order because he and the supervisor were talking on the radio at the same time, but upon hearing the order the second time, he turned off his lights and siren and slowed down. Moments later, Bustos ran a red light and crashed into Nelson’s car.

After the jury found for the defendants, Nelson’s estate, which represented her 18-month-old-daughter, appealed the verdict and the trial court’s order denying a motion for new trial. The Utah Supreme Court held a new trial is required because Ogden City’s lawyer repeatedly violated the trial court’s orders in limine.

Those orders prevented the introduction of any evidence attacking Jessica’s character because it was irrelevant to the fact that she was killed. They also excluded on grounds of being irrelevant or unfairly prejudicial any evidence concerning the lack of stability in Jessica’s childhood, the toxicology report indicating that Jessica was using drugs the night of the accident, and various other items.

Despite those orders, the City’s lawyer, Heather S. White, questioned Nelson’s mother to imply Jessica and Ellis were engaged in some kind of prostitution scheme, and she asked about Ellis’ prior criminal history. As to these questions and those relating to what Nelson and Ellis were doing, the Court said White’s conduct was “indefensible” and it condemned her conduct.

“Whether Mr. Ellis and Jessica were engaged in prostitution, or looking for drugs, or simply driving around in the moonlight, in no way bears on the issues to be decided at trial,” the Court wrote. “At most, Ogden city could only hope to reduce Plaintiff’s damages by making Jessica a less sympathetic character.”

Having concluded the trial court erred in denying the motion for trial because the probative value to the questioning was outweighed by its prejudicial effect, the matter was reversed and remanded for a new trial. The new jury will have to decide if the City and Jones was negligent in the pursuit of Bustos and whether the City was negligent in failing to enact proper policies regarding how to terminate a pursuit. Nelson’s estate is represented by Salt Lake City attorneys Robert B. Sykes and Robert J. Fuller. See: Barrientos v. Jones, 2012 UT 33 (Utah 2012)

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Related legal case

Barrientos v. Jones