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Blinn v. Sindwani

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

September 10, 2019

DAVID BLINN
v.
DESH SINDWANI

          Argued March 19, 2019

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for the defendant's alleged negligence, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Tolland, where the court, Farley, J., sustained the defendant's objection to the plaintiff's motions in limine to preclude certain evidence; thereafter, the matter was tried to a jury; judgment for the plaintiff, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Blake A. Driscolli, with whom was Peter J. Brown, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Julie Harris, with whom, on the brief, was Yelena Akim, for the appellee (defendant).

          Alvord, Keller and Beach, Js.

          OPINION

          BEACH, J.

         In this personal injury action arising out of an automobile accident, the plaintiff, David Blinn, appeals from the judgment of the trial court rendered following a jury verdict against the defendant, Desh Sindwani. The plaintiff claims that the court erred by sustaining the defendant's objection to his motions in limine that sought to preclude evidence of the plaintiff's (1) prior misconduct and (2) citation arising from a motor vehicle accident that occurred on June 6, 2014, which resulted in a violation of the plaintiff's probation stemming from a 2013 conviction for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs in violation of General Statutes § 14-227a. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts which the jury reasonably could have found and procedural history are relevant on appeal. On June 15, 2012, the plaintiff was operating his motorcycle on Route 83 in Rockville, Connecticut. As he traveled northbound, he approached Pease Farm Road in Ellington on his right. The defendant was stopped at a stop sign on Pease Farm Road waiting to proceed onto Route 83. As the plaintiff approached the intersection, the defendant pulled out from the stop sign. The plaintiff struck the defendant's driver's side rear door and was ejected from his motorcycle. The plaintiff commenced this action alleging that the accident was caused by the defendant's negligence in the operation of his motor vehicle. The plaintiff sought, in pertinent part, damages for mental injuries suffered as a result of the accident. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the accident caused him mental anguish and exacerbated preexisting conditions of anxiety and depression. The defendant filed a special defense alleging that the plaintiff's negligence contributed to the accident and damages.

         The parties agreed to enter into evidence certain treatment records from Community Health Resources (CHR), a mental health services provider, from whom the plaintiff sought counseling from January 7, 2014 through December 10, 2014, and again from July 9, 2015, through October 12, 2016. These treatment records contained references to various incidents of the plaintiff's prior misconduct, including a ten month term of incarceration for felony larceny, harassment charges, and operating a motor vehicle while under the influence, as well as a citation for driving an unregistered vehicle.

         Claiming lack of relevance, remoteness, and high potential for prejudice, the plaintiff filed a motion in limine to exclude all references to his prior nonfelony convictions, arrests, and misconduct. The plaintiff filed a second motion in limine to exclude all references to a citation that he received for his alleged involvement in a motor vehicle accident that took place on June 6, 2014, which the plaintiff said could be used to suggest that he was involved in a subsequent motor vehicle accident and that his alleged injuries were the result of that accident, or to suggest bad character. The plaintiff also argued that evidence concerning the June 6, 2014 citation was a collateral matter that would distract the jury and unduly prejudice him.

         The defendant objected to the plaintiff's motions in limine, asserting that both the evidence of prior misconduct and the evidence of the 2014 citation would not be offered for any impermissible use, such as showing bad character but, rather, to dispute the claim that the earlier accident that was the subject of the trial was a cause of the plaintiff's emotional distress and a reason he sought psychotherapy at CHR. The defendant argued in opposition to the motion in limine that ‘‘[t]o permit the plaintiff to proceed with a claim that the therapy he had at CHR was due to the 2012 accident, and that his ongoing anxiety and distress was due solely to injuries he suffered in that accident, without permitting the defendant to introduce alternative explanations for the plaintiff's treatment and distress, which explanations appear in the treatment record itself, would be a miscarriage, as it is highly probative of the plaintiff's damage claim and is admissible for that reason.'' (Emphasis in original.)

         The court sustained the defendant's objection for the reasons stated in the objection but limited the defendant's use of the misconduct evidence to that which was related to anxiety and depression and was contained in the treatment records. Further, the court ordered that the defendant was not to introduce into evidence facts of the incidents themselves, but rather only the proceedings that were triggered by those underlying incidents and any effects that they may have had on the plaintiff's mental health.

         At trial, the plaintiff offered into evidence treatment records regarding his sessions at CHR between January 7, 2014, and October 12, 2016. The treatment records indicated that the plaintiff was ordered by the court, in connection with dissolution proceedings, to attend treatment at CHR.[1] The plaintiff also submitted bills for mental health treatment that he had received at CHR and Manchester Memorial Hospital totaling $20, 708.61.

         When asked on direct examination about his mental health and treatment history, the plaintiff said that he had been in counseling for anxiety and mood disorders for most of his life. He also was asked specifically about what had brought him to CHR. He cited issues relating to his divorce but also testified that the accident that was the subject of this case was an additional reason why he continued to seek treatment.

         On cross-examination, the plaintiff testified about various incidents of prior misconduct and their effects on his mental health leading up to and throughout his treatment at CHR.[2] He also testified about the motor vehicle citation issued on June 6, 2014.[3] The plaintiff's counsel did not object to the introduction of such evidence at any point during the cross-examination, nor did he ask for curative instructions regarding limited use of this evidence by the jury. During closing argument, the defendant's counsel told the jury that she did not intend to disparage the plaintiff for his past. Instead, she highlighted the roles that the prior misconduct and the June, 2014 citation played in the plaintiff's seeking and receiving treatment at CHR.[4]

         The jury found that the defendant was liable and that the plaintiff was entitled to damages of $58, 500. The jury also found that the plaintiff's negligence was 50 percent responsible for the accident, and it reduced the total damages award to $29, 250. The court accepted the verdict and rendered judgment accordingly. This appeal followed.

         ‘‘Our standard of review for evidentiary matters allows the trial court great leeway in deciding the admissibility of evidence. The trial court has wide discretion in its rulings on evidence and its rulings will be reversed only if the court has abused its discretion or an injustice appears to have been done. . . . The exercise of such discretion is not to be disturbed unless it has been abused or the error is clear and involves a misconception of the law.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Russo, 62 Conn.App. 129, 133, 773 A.2d 965 (2001). In reviewing for abuse of discretion, ‘‘the ultimate issue is whether the court could reasonably conclude as it did.'' DiPalma v. Wiesen, 163 Conn. 293, 299, 303 A.2d 709 (1972).

         I

         We first address the plaintiff's claim that evidence of his prior misconduct should have been precluded. Specifically relying on § 4-5 of the Connecticut Code of Evidence, the plaintiff argues that the evidence did not fit any of the exceptions to the general rule of inadmissibility. The defendant responds that such evidence was relevant to the plaintiff's claim that his treatment for anxiety and depression in 2014 and 2015 resulted from the 2012 accident. We agree with the defendant.

         The Connecticut Code of Evidence provides, in relevant part, that ‘‘[a]ll relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by the constitution of the United States, the constitution of the state of Connecticut, the Code, the General Statutes or the common law.'' Conn. Code Evid. § 4-2. Relevant evidence is defined as ‘‘evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is material to the determination of the proceeding more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.'' Conn. Code Evid. § 4-1.

         ‘‘Evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts of a person is inadmissible to prove the bad character, propensity, or criminal tendencies of that person . . . .'' Conn. Code Evid. § 4-5 (a). However, subsection (c) of § 4-5 provides that such evidence is admissible ‘‘for purposes other than those specified in subsection (a), such as to prove intent, identity, malice, motive, common plan or scheme, absence of mistake or accident, knowledge, a system of criminal activity, or an element of the crime, or to corroborate crucial prosecution testimony.'' Conn. Code Evid. § 4-5 (c). This court has recognized that this code section is applicable to both criminal and civil cases. See Senk v. Senk, 115 Conn.App. 510, 518, 973 A.2d 131 (2009).

         To determine the admissibility of prior misconduct evidence, we use a two part test. ‘‘Under the first prong of the test, the evidence must be relevant for a purpose other than showing the defendant's bad character or criminal tendencies.'' (Footnote omitted.) State v. Martin V., 102 Conn.App. 381, 386, 926 A.2d 49, cert. denied, 284 Conn. 911, 931 A.2d 933 (2007). Recognized purposes include those enumerated in § 4-5 (c) but are not limited to such. See id. Second, ‘‘[f]or prior misconduct evidence to be admissible, it must not only be relevant and material, but also more probative than prejudicial.'' State v. Campbell, 328 Conn. 444, 522, 180 A.3d 882 (2018). ‘‘Of course, [a]ll adverse evidence is damaging to one's case, but it is inadmissible only if it creates undue prejudice so that it threatens an injustice were it to be admitted. . . . The test for determining whether evidence is unduly prejudicial is not whether it is damaging to the defendant but whether it will improperly arouse the emotions of the [fact finder]. . . . The trial court . . . must determine whether the adverse impact of the challenged evidence outweighs its probative value. . . . [B]ecause of the difficulties inherent in this balancing process . . . every reasonable presumption should be given in favor of the trial court's ruling. . . . Reversal is required only [when] an abuse of discretion is manifest or [when] injustice appears to have been done.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Solomon, 150 Conn.App. 458, 463, 91 A.3d 523, cert denied, 314 Conn. 908, 100 A.3d 401 (2014).

         In Campbell, our Supreme Court held that the listed exceptions in section 4-5 (b)[5] of the Connecticut Code of Evidence are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. State v. Campbell, supra, 328 Conn. 519. ‘‘A court is not precluded ‘from recognizing other appropriate purposes for which other crimes, wrongs or acts evidence may be admitted, provided the evidence is not introduced to prove a person's bad character or criminal tendencies . . . .' '' Id., quoting Conn. Code Evid. § 4-5 (b), commentary;[6] see State v. Campbell, supra, 519 (holding that establishing means for committing crime is appropriate alternative purpose for which prior misconduct evidence may be admissible); see also State v. Cooper, 227 Conn. 417, 424-25, 630 A.2d 1043 (1993) (holding that prior misconduct is admissible to complete story of crime on trial by placing it in context of nearby and nearly contemporaneous events).

         The prior misconduct was relevant to the issue of whether the accident caused emotional distress, for which the plaintiff claimed damages. The trial court properly admitted the misconduct evidence for the limited purpose of providing reasons for and the context of the plaintiff's treatment for anxiety and depression in 2014 and 2015. During his therapy sessions, the plaintiff discussed various stressors in his life, including court involvement, financial difficulties, his son's needs, and his divorce.[7] The plaintiff did not mention the 2012 accident until his session on February 18, 2014. At his session following the June 6, 2014 citation, the plaintiff described how the incident affected him.[8] He further elaborated on the incident's impact, particularly as it related to his probation status, in the sessions that fol-lowed.[9] The references to the misconduct are relevant because they tended to show that the plaintiff's treatment at CHR did not result from the accident, but rather from other events, including the prior misconduct. Although issues of causation and damages in civil cases are not among the exceptions expressly listed in § 4-5 (c), we hold that the misconduct evidence in this case was material to the plaintiff's claim for emotional damages and was admitted for an appropriate purpose.[10]

         We next consider whether the trial court properly determined that the probative value of the evidence outweighed its prejudicial effects. The plaintiff claims that the introduction of the evidence inappropriately biased the jury and caused it to reduce the damages award by 50 percent due to comparative negligence. The defendant argues that the plaintiff put his emotional injuries and treatment records a tissue by seeking monetary compensation for his treatment at CHR. We agree with the defendant.

         Our Supreme Court has noted that ‘‘[t]he party who initiates discussion on the issue is said to have opened the door to rebuttal by the opposing party. . . . The purpose of allowing the introduction of such evidence is not to give the opposing party a license to introduce unreliable or irrelevant evidence but to allow the opposing party to put the initial offer of evidence into its proper context.'' (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Somers v. LeVasseur, 230 Conn. 560, 565, 645 A.2d 993 (1994). Here, the evidence that the plaintiff sought to preclude provided necessary context for his claim that he required treatment for anxiety and depression in 2014 and 2015 as a result of the 2012 accident by highlighting the extent to which there were other stressors in his life that likely contributed to his need for treatment at CHR. As reported in the treatment records, the plaintiff's general discussion of his court involvement as an ongoing stressor was not specific; it was unclear what court proceedings he was referring to. The evidence elicited incross-examination regarding the plaintiff's prior misconduct was highly probative because it developed the specific nature of the court involvement to which the plaintiff was referring. Because the plaintiff introduced the contents of the treatment records and claimed that his mental health treatment was a result of the accident, he ‘‘opened the door'' to admitting the evidence. He was not unfairly prejudiced by the contents of the medical records that were related to his treatment at CHR.

         In support of his claim that the evidence was more prejudicial than probative, the plaintiff contends that the defendant had other evidence available to dispute that the treatment resulted from the accident. Specifically, he claims that the therapy records as a whole sufficiently demonstrated that he ‘‘discussed stressors in his life beyond his injuries from the accident, including his background, family and financial issues, without exposing the highly prejudicial facts concerning his convictions for harassment of his ex-wife, [operating a motor vehicle while under the influence], [v]iolation of [p]robation, and a thirty-day incarceration, as well as arrests that did not even lead to a conviction.'' He further argued that the prejudicial effect of a criminal record far outweighed any disadvantage that the defendant may have endured ‘‘if the jury was not made aware that [the plaintiff] had been ordered to attend therapy in connection with court proceedings and that during part of those therapy sessions he discussed stressors he was experiencing from those criminal charges.'' We ...


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