Texas Court Deals With Issue of Allegedly Prejudicial Reference to Injured Woman’s Immigration Status in Truck Accident Case

Immigration is a hot-button issue these days. From the feasibility of building a wall to the propriety of separating parents and children at the border, it seems there is a story in the news pertaining to immigration nearly every day.

The subject of immigration can even arise in an east Texas car or truck accident case, causing complications and, sometimes, the need for a new trial when potentially prejudicial information is presented to the jury.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case (Court of Appeals for the Thirteenth District; No. 13-17-00006-CV), the plaintiff was a woman who filed suit against the defendants, a truck driver and a trucking company, seeking compensation for injuries the plaintiff allegedly suffered in a 2013 motor vehicle accident. According to the plaintiff, the accident was caused by the negligence of the truck driver, who made an unsafe lane change and struck the plaintiff’s vehicle as the two were traveling along I-10. At trial, both the plaintiff and the truck driver testified with the aid of an interpreter.

The trial court entered a take-nothing judgment in favor of the defendants. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial court should have granted a new trial because the defendants’ attorney made improper comments relating to the plaintiff’s ethnicity and immigration status and because the evidence was factually insufficient to support the jury’s findings.

Decision of the Court

The appeals court reversed and remanded, holding that the plaintiff should have been granted a new trial. During pre-trial proceedings, the trial court instructed defense counsel to avoid making any statement or offering any evidence concerning the plaintiff’s immigration status, but defense counsel nevertheless made some remarks that the plaintiff argued were improper and prejudicial. One instance of this occurred when the defendant’s attorney made a reference to the plaintiff’s native language (Spanish), and another occurred when the attorney asked a witness whether his expert opinion assumed that the plaintiff was going to continue living in the United States.

The court observed that, ordinarily, a party’s complaints concerning improper remarks in front of the jury must be preserved by a timely objection and request for an instruction to disregard (which was not done here). However, sometimes things may be said that are so extreme as to be incurable. The court went on to note that, in some situations, the unnecessary injection of issues such as race, religion, or gender can damage not only an individual litigant but also the civil justice system.

While defense counsel’s question regarding the plaintiff’s native language was not, by itself, prejudicial, the appellate court found that question about whether the expert witness assumed that the plaintiff would remain in the United States was “highly problematic.” Under Texas law, a plaintiff is not required to show citizenship or the possession of an immigration work permit as a prerequisite to recover damages for lost earning capacity. In light of the trial court’s order not to bring up the plaintiff’s immigration status, the court held that it was “difficult to understand counsel’s question as anything other than a veiled reference to [the plaintiff’s] status as an undocumented immigrant.” Under the circumstances, the question was incurably prejudicial.

Experienced East Texas Truck Accident Attorney

At Earl Drott Law in Tyler, we have been helping east Texans seek fair compensation following car and truck accidents for over three decades. If you’ve been hurt and need a lawyer, please give us a call at 903-531-9300. It is important not to delay in seeking counsel, as there are deadlines (such as the statute of limitations) that must be complied with in personal injury and wrongful death cases. Failure to file the appropriate paperwork in a timely fashion can result in dismissal of an otherwise strong case.

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