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Ayala v. Lee

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

December 18, 2013

RIGOBERTO E. DOMINGOS AYALA, ET AL.
v.
ROBERT FREDERICK LEE, ET AL.

Zarnoch, Graeff, Salmon, James P. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

ZARNOCH, J.

This case presents two key issues for resolution: (1) Can a driver be found negligent if an accident occurs when his truck crashes into a parked vehicle but the apparently healthy driver has no memory of the accident? and (2) Is a plaintiff's status as an undocumented immigrant[1] relevant and admissible evidence in this personal injury action?

Appellants Rigoberto E. Domingos Ayala and Jose R. Rodas Santacruz were working for Ebb Tide Tents and Party Rentals ("Ebb Tide") when they were involved in a motor vehicle accident. The truck driven by appellee Robert F. Lee, holder of a commercial driver's license, on behalf of his employer Bay State Pool Supplies of Baltimore, Inc. ("Bay State"), collided with Ebb Tide's parked truck, resulting in severe injuries to Ayala and Santacruz. Ayala, Santacruz, and Imelda Carolina Chavez Ventura, Ayala's wife, sued Lee and Bay State for negligence. A six-day jury trial resulted in a jury verdict for Lee and Bay State, which appellants now ask us to reverse. We agree with appellants and therefore we reverse the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

FACTS AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

Ayala and Santacruz were working for William Edward Comegys, Jr., then the owner of Ebb Tide, on September 27, 2010. Comegys was driving the three of them from the company headquarters to a job site in Annapolis and was traveling westbound on Route 50. It was raining, and the truck's windshield wipers stopped working at some point during the drive. After crossing the Bay Bridge, Comegys stopped the truck and pulled over to the right hand shoulder of Route 50. The vehicle was fully out of the travel lanes, with the two right wheels on the grass and the two left wheels on the paved part of the shoulder. The emergency flashers were also on. Comegys, Ayala, and Santacruz all exited the truck and went to work on the windshield wipers. They had just fixed the wipers and were standing in front of the vehicle when suddenly their truck was struck from behind by the truck owned by Bay State and operated by Lee. Comegys was killed as a result of the impact. Ayala and Santacruz survived, but suffered serious and permanent injuries to their lower extremities.

Ayala, Santacruz, and Ventura filed a complaint against Lee and Bay State in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County on November 3, 2010.[2] Ayala and Santacruz each alleged counts of negligence against Lee and Bay State (Counts I and II) and counts of negligent entrustment and hiring against Bay State (Counts III and IV).[3] Ayala and Ventura also claimed loss of consortium against Lee and Bay State (Count V). The damages sought included past and future medical expenses, loss of income, and loss of earning capacity.

It became obvious even before trial that Ayala and Santacruz's immigration status would be at issue. Ayala and Santacruz are originally from El Salvador. In 2006, they entered the United States through Texas without presenting themselves to federal immigration authorities. They eventually settled in Maryland. Each acquired a Social Security Number and used it to get a permanent resident card, seek employment, and pay taxes. However, each Social Security Number was acquired illegally. Ayala and Santacruz are therefore undocumented immigrants.[4]

Appellants moved to exclude evidence of their immigration status at trial in a written motion filed on April 26, 2012. The circuit court considered this and other motions in limine at a hearing on May 29, and ruled that immigration status was relevant and admissible evidence. Because Ayala and Santacruz asked for income-based damages, the circuit court reasoned that they had opened the door to inquiries about their immigration status. In the court's view, there was a valid question over whether or not a plaintiff could legally earn the income he was claiming in damages. The court also found that the fact that Ayala and Santacruz had misrepresented their immigration status on employment forms was relevant to their credibility. Accordingly, at the August 2012 trial, the jury heard extensive testimony from Ayala and Santacruz on their legal status and how they came to the United States. Indeed, the second question asked of Ayala during cross-examination was: "You do not have a Social Security Number issued to you by the United States Government?" Counsel for Bay State and Lee also asked almost every other witness questions related to appellants' immigration status.[5]

Ayala and Santacruz also testified about their injuries as a result of the accident and how those injuries had affected their ability to work. They called expert witnesses to corroborate their testimony, including the orthopedist who treated them, a rehabilitation specialist, and an economist. The Maryland State Troopers who had responded to the accident also testified. They described the work they did to reconstruct the accident scene, which showed that the front right corner of the Bay State truck hit the back left corner of the Ebb Tide truck. There was no damage to any other part of the Bay State truck. The officers also testified that the conditions that day included some rain but no obstructions to vision or any construction along that portion of Route 50.

Lee and Bay State relied on testimony from their own medical expert, who testified that Ayala and Santacruz's injuries were less severe than they claimed, and video evidence from an investigator who had recorded Ayala and Santacruz performing various day-to-day activities. They also presented, over objection, the de bene esse deposition of the woman who had been lawfully issued the Social Security Number Ayala was using. Absent from the trial, however, was Lee himself. Because Lee was hospitalized, his deposition was read to the jury and served as his testimony. Accordingly, the jury heard that Lee was driving about fifty miles per hour in the right travel lane of Route 50. He saw a vehicle in his left side mirror and thought "Buddy, you're getting too close. You're coming into my lane." Lee's next memory was of crashing through the brush on the right side of the highway. He did not remember striking the Ebb Tide truck, nor did he remember seeing the truck. When asked how his vehicle moved to the right shoulder, Lee stated that "I must have just turned the wheel to the right, slightly." When asked if he was guessing, Lee said "I don't remember turning the wheel, but I could have – but it could have been [a] reaction as I was looking, you know."

Appellants moved for "judgment on the issue of liability" at the close of Lee and Bay State's case, which the circuit court denied. The case was submitted to the jury, which found that Lee and Bay State were not negligent. Ayala and Santacruz timely appealed.

Additional facts will be discussed below.

QUESTIONS PRESENTED

Appellants ask us to review five questions, [6] which we have consolidated:

I. Did the circuit court err when it denied appellants' motion for judgment?
II. Did the circuit court abuse its discretion when it denied appellants' motion in limine to exclude evidence of appellants' immigration status at trial?
III. Did the circuit court abuse its discretion when it permitted a de beneesse deposition of a witness who was legally issued the ...

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