Monday, May 09, 2005

Smalley v. Baty (Cal. Ct. App. - April 26, 2005)

I don't know about this one. Justice Sims holds that it is reversible error -- indeed, an abuse of discretion -- for the trial court to preclude plaintiff from introducing evidence that he personally paid the medical bills at issue (rather than his insurance company). I may agree with the trial court here. I don't see what it adds that the plaintiff personally paid the bills. How's that relevant? That the bills were paid is clearly relevant. But not who paid 'em.

Moreover, I'm quite sympathetic with the trial court's view that this evidence would be overly prejudicial even if you could come up with some argument as to why it's relevant. We all know that the jury is going to be more likely to award damages if plaintiff pays the bills himself. But we don't want that fact considered, just like the collateral source rule prevents the defendant from introducing the fact that the insurance company paid the bills. We just want the jury to pay what's right. That shouldn't depend upon who actually paid the bills. (For similar reasons, even if this was error, I don't know why it's reversible error, since this stuff shouldn't be relevant in the first place, much less should it be likely to legitimately result in a different verdict.)

Plus, there's a second level problem here. If this evidence is indeed admissible, the resulting rule means that every intelligent jury will be able to figure out that the plaintiff didn't actually pay the bills himself if there's no evidence that he directly paid them. Which frustrates the goal of the collateral source rule. This is the classic problems with one-way principles. If you can show X but the other side can't show Y, the jury will know that Y is true whenever you don't show X. Which defeats the point of the rule, a central function of which is to stop the jury from thinking about X and Y and focus on the evidence instead. Which is why -- wholly beyond the issue of relevance -- we should prefer a categorical rule that says that neither side can discuss the issue of who paid the bills.

I understand why Justice Sims comes out the way he does. But I think the resulting rule is a pernicious one.