In a negligence action, evidence of similar accidents or occurrences, or the absence thereof, may be relevant circumstantially to determine whether a defective or dangerous condition, notice thereof, or causation existed on the occasion in question.
The plaintiff filed a negligence claim against the defendants for injuries sustained when he fell in front of the elevator in the lobby of an office building. The complaint alleged that defendants negligently maintained said premises. The trial court, however, returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing irrelevant and prejudicial evidence of the absence of other accidents.
Did the trial court abuse its discretion?
The court vacated the judgment of the trial court, which returned a verdict for the defendant on the plaintiff's negligence claim because the evidence presented was unfairly prejudicial, and the jury was allowed to make its decision on an improper basis. The court found that before the trial began, the plaintiff made clear through counsel that he was abandoning his negligent supervision of maintenance claim and that he did not assert any claim of a recurring condition or preexisting dangerous condition. While the existence or absence of prior accidents may be relevant on issues of notice, recurring conditions, causation, or supervision of maintenance, evidence of the defendants' accident-free record was not relevant to the very narrow issue of whether the janitor acted in a particular way on the day in question. The court determined that because the defendants offered no other reason for the admission of the accident history, the trial court erred in admitting it.