Opinion:Lopez-Velazquez v. Guittierrez De Alcala, 2022 OK CIV APP 19
Subject matter:Tort Liability–Negligence
Date Decided:July 19, 2021
Trial Court:District Court of Garfield County
Route to this Court:Plaintiff Lopez-Velazquez, individually and on behalf of a minor, appealed from the trial court’s judgment memorializing a jury verdict in favor of Defendant Alejandra De Alcala.
Facts:Plaintiff and her daughter were passengers in a car driven by Defendant that collided with a car driven by Defendant Valladares. The case against Valladares was settled before trial, and a jury trial heard the negligence case of Plaintiff’s claim against Defendant. The claim against Defendant was that she failed to react sooner to avoid the collision, as Plaintiff claimed to have shouted at least four times to warn Defendant of the other car entering the roadway. Defendant proceeded forward and stuck Valladares’s car. Plaintiff’s testimony was supported by her eight-year-old daughter, but was contradicted by Defendant and her nineteen-year-old daughter who was also in the car. The jury verdict returned in favor of Defendant, after which Plaintiff moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on grounds that no reasonable jury could determine Defendant was not negligent based on the evidence presented. Plaintiff also moved for mistrial on the basis that the officer who investigated the incident testified that he cited Valladares for inattentive driving, but not Defendant, and that his testimony was inadmissible and constituted prejudicial error. The trial court denied these motions. Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s judgment.
Standard of Review:“Rulings concerning the admission of evidence are measured against the abuse of discretion standard.” Holm-Waddle v. William D. Hawley, M.D., Inc., 1998 OK 53, ¶ 5. “An abuse of discretion occurs when a decision is based on an erroneous conclusion of law or where there is no rational basis in evidence for the ruling.” Spencer v. Oklahoma Gas & Elec. Co., 2007 OK 76, ¶ 13.
Analysis:The primary issue before the court was whether it was proper to allow the testimony of the investigating officer in which he admitted that he had cited Valladares, but not Defendant. Plaintiff challenged the testimony by relying on Gabus v. Harvey, 1984 OK. The officer was not brought in to testify of his opinion of who was liable for the collision. The Court agreed with Plaintiff’s argument based on Gabus, and determined that the officer “effectively put the stamp of expertise upon an issue that the jury was fully competent to decide,” which then risked permitting the jury to substitute the officer’s opinion for that of the jury’s judgment. Gabus, 1984 OK 4, ¶25. Allowing that evidence violated 12 O.S. 2011 and Supp. 2020 §§ 2101-3011 of the Oklahoma Evidence Code. The Court determined that under Oklahoma law, evidence of a citation issued by an officer, without admission of guilt, may not properly be presented to a jury deciding the issue of liability or fault in an automobile negligence accident. That evidence can confuse a jury because it allowed testimony as to the fault, but then the jury was advised that the officer was not there to testify who caused the accident.

The Court rejected Dedendant’s argument that allowing the testimony was a harmless error because Plaintiff suffered no prejudice because Gabus showed that on that point such testimony of a witness in an official capacity could greatly impress a juror to simply agree with the officer’s opinion. Allowing such evidence is highly prejudicial and if a trial court admits such evidence over objection and gives an adverse verdict to the objecting party, then a new trial must be granted. Moore v. Blackwell, 2014 OK CIV APP 37.
Outcome:Reversed and Remanded for Further Proceedings.
Vote:2-1. Hixon, J. (sitting by designation) and Wiseman, P.J. (author) concur. Barnes, J. dissents.
Other: Judge Barnes dissented with the majority on the grounds that the Court’s ruling, in his opinion, was too extreme and almost certainly did away with harmless error review, since the majority stated that admission of such evidence over an objection is error requiring a new trial because the evidence allowed for the jury to hear was highly prejudicial. Allowing that evidence could constitute a harmless error because the evidence presented showed that Valladares sped through a stop sign traveling at highway speed. Therefore, it would have been obvious to the jury that he was cited for inattentive driving, and the damage of allowing citation evidence was minimal. The evidence also showed, undisputedly, that Defendant was traveling the speed limit and applied her brakes.

Judge Barnes would have had the Court apply the harmless error review, because the heavy-handedness of granting a retrial as the Majority decided is the kind of heavy-handedness that it should exercise only in cases of a constitutional violation. Here that was not the case. Citing much of the evidence of the trial, there was plenty for the jury to rely on to determine that Defendant had exercised reasonable care in order to avoid the accident. Had the Majority applied harmless error review, it would have found an absence of the requisite probability that the jury’s verdict would have been different but for the error in question. He would have sustained the unanimous jury verdict.