The Maryland Court of Special Appeals in Ayala v. Lee has addressed a long-standing question over whether a plaintiff’s illegal immigration status can be raised by defense counsel at a trial involving claims for personal injury where future lost wages and future medical expenses are claimed by a plaintiff. The court ruled that in certain limited circumstances, one’s illegal status may be relevant and admissible, but that the trial judge must first weigh the potential prejudice of the line of questioning proposed against the probative value of allowing a jury to hear such evidence. The appellate court’s opinion provides important guidance to future litigants, attorneys, and judges on an issue that is arising more regularly in civil trials.
The case involved personal injury claims by several undocumented aliens who were struck in a company truck that had been parked on the side of Route 50 after it pulled over due to mechanical difficulties. The plaintiffs were outside of the vehicle, standing in front of it, when it was struck from behind by a vehicle that entered onto the shoulder. The plaintiffs were injured. The driver who hit the plaintiffs claimed he was forced onto the shoulder by a vehicle traveling in the lane to his left and that he had no choice but to move off the road to avoid a collision.
The case went to trial on the issues of negligence and damages. Plaintiffs presented evidence of their past and likely future medical care costs for their injuries along with their past and projected future wage loss due to work limitations caused by their injuries. During cross-examination, the trial judge allowed defense counsel to question the plaintiffs and their experts at length about plaintiffs’ illegal status. In response to plaintiffs’ objection, defense counsel argued that plaintiffs’ immigration status was relevant since their inevitable deportation would impact their future medical and wage claims since the medical care and employment opportunities in the United States, upon which their claims were based, were not similarly available in Plaintiffs’ home country.
The trial judge agreed, ruling that the plaintiffs had “opened the door” to the admissibility of their illegal status by making damages claims that presupposed their permanent presence in the United States with the attendant availability of medical care and employment opportunities not found in their home country. The trial judge also ruled that the evidence was admissible for impeachment purposes since plaintiffs misrepresented their status in sworn written interrogatory answers and in tax returns which contained social security numbers not belonging to them.
During cross-examination of plaintiffs’ medical and vocation experts, the trial judge permitted defense counsel to question the experts about their knowledge of plaintiffs’ illegal status. In response, the experts were forced to concede they were unaware of the plaintiffs’ illegal status and that their projections on the future medical care needs and future lost earnings claims were erroneous since their opinions presupposed the availability of ongoing medical care and employment opportunities in the United States rather than in the plaintiffs’ home country of El Salvador, where such care and employment opportunities were dramatically more restricted.
Ultimately, the jury returned verdicts against the plaintiffs and found in favor of the defendant who drove his vehicle onto the emergency shoulder and struck the disabled vehicle in front of which plaintiffs were standing. The plaintiffs appealed the decision and raised two issues on appeal. First whether the immigration status was relevant and admissible and second, whether a driver whose vehicle that enters onto the shoulder and strikes a parked vehicle or pedestrians, under the circumstances, is negligent as a matter of law. On the second issue, the appeals court ruled that the driver was negligent as a matter of law in inexplicably leaving the traveled portion of the highway and striking plaintiffs on the shoulder. Thus, the court ordered a new trial and evaluated the impact the admission of plaintiffs’ immigration status had on the jury verdict in favor of an otherwise negligent defendant.
Judge Zarnoch set forth very helpful and practical advice for lawyers involved in representing or defending against claims of illegal immigrants. The opinion as it relates to this issue clearly strikes a balance between the probative value of introducing evidence of one’s illegal status and the reality that a jury’s receipt of such evidence may incite a jury’s dislike or disapproval of a party who otherwise holds a legitimate claim. The court concluded that immigration status is relevant and admissible for impeachment purposes on cross-examination when plaintiffs lie about their status in sworn statements made prior to trial that would reflect on their honesty and truthfulness while on the witness stand.
The court found that immigration status is relevant on the issue of claims of future lost wages and medical care when those claims are predicated on plaintiff’s continued presence in the United States, but cautioned that defense counsel must limit their status-related questioning so as to avoid instilling jury dislike and hatred toward plaintiffs to such an extent that meritorious claims are rejected. Thus, the appeals court concluded, for example, that the trial judge should not have allowed defense counsel to ambush plaintiffs’ experts with plaintiffs’ illegal status-a fact they did not know when formulating their opinions–which had the propensity to create an unfair and prejudicial atmosphere of distrust and hatred within the courtroom. Instead, the court held that cross-examination should have been limited by the trial judge to a series of carefully crafted and pre-cleared questions designed to establish that the experts’ future medical cost and wage loss projections were relevant only to those seeking medical treatment and working within the United States.
The court also explained that when status evidence is admitted, plaintiffs should have the opportunity to present evidence that mitigates the potential prejudice of their illegal status, including the likelihood (or unlikelihood) that they would be deported in the future, whether immigration proceedings are pending against them, the duration of their presence in the United States, their work history in the United States, the extent to which they have family in the United States, the United States wage rate, and the wage rate of their home country should they be forced to leave the United States.
One question that remains unclear from the opinion is whether and to what extent expert testimony is required on the issue of the likelihood or unlikelihood of future deportation and other issues of immigration law and procedure which would not be commonly known by jurors. Although a judge may, under certain circumstances, take judicial notice of certain statistical information, including publically available statistical information from the United States government, it is unclear whether and to what extent data exists on such issues as the likelihood of deportation and certain wage information, and whether a court could take judicial notice of such information, particularly where the particular statistics are dependent on more technical facts and circumstances.
In a future blog, we will discuss the second part of the case which involves a determination that a driver whose vehicle leaves the traveled portion of the highway and strikes a vehicle or pedestrian located on a shoulder or emergency strip is negligent. The attorneys at Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz have litigated similar cases and have obtained very large settlements and verdicts for motorists and pedestrians struck on emergency shoulders and medium strips. If you’ve been involved in an auto accident, call us at 410.234.0100 and let us help you.