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Law School Case Brief

Fuentes v. Tucker - 31 Cal. 2d 1, 187 P.2d 752 (1947)

Rule:

If the amount awarded plaintiffs is not disproportionate to the loss suffered, the erroneous admission of immaterial evidence has not resulted in a miscarriage of justice, and the judgment should be affirmed.

Facts:

The minor sons of the plaintiffs were killed by an automobile operated by defendant driver. The two actions were consolidated for trial, and in each case the verdict of the jury awarded the plaintiffs $7,500. On the day of the trial, the driver filed amended answers admitting liability. The superior court nevertheless allowed the parents to introduce evidence concerning the circumstances of the accident, including that driver was intoxicated and their children were thrown 80 feet by the force of the impact. The driver appealed the judgments, arguing that the introduction of the evidence of the circumstances of the accident was unrelated to the issue of damages. He also argued that joinder of the mothers as plaintiffs with the fathers augmented the damages.

Issue:

Was the introduction of evidence unrelated to the issue of damages a material error which prejudiced the driver?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court noted that if an issue has been removed from a case by an admission in the answer, that it is error to receive evidence which is material solely to the excluded matter. However, it did not mean that an admission of liability would preclude a plaintiff from showing how an accident happened if such evidence was material to the issue of damages. In an action for personal injuries, where liability was admitted and the only issue to be tried was the amount of damage, the force of the impact and the surrounding circumstances may be relevant and material to indicate the extent of plaintiff's injuries. In the case at bar, the Court held that in order to determine whether the driver was prejudiced by the erroneous admission of immaterial evidence which may have tended to increase the amount of the verdict, it should be determined whether the amount awarded was disproportionate to the loss suffered. In the case at bar, the Court determined that the parents in each case were entitled to  recover for the pecuniary loss they suffered by reason of the death of their son, and in determining that loss the jury could take into consideration the benefits that the parents were reasonably certain to have received from the earnings and services of their child during his minority, the support and financial benefit which they would have received from the child after it reached majority, and also the pecuniary loss which the parents suffered and will suffer in the future by being deprived of the comfort, society and protection of the child. Hence, the amount of $7,500 cannot be said to be an unreasonable amount to allow for the wrongful death of a child. Therefore, the Court held that the error did not result in a miscarriage of justice, and affirmed the trial court’s decision.

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