The Court of Appeals’ examination of the plaintiff’s arguments and the trial court record in Hahn v Vanduker (Docket No. 349427) shows that trial counsel’s anticipation of and response to discovery- and evidence-related issues may have a dispositive effect on the outcome of a trial. The Court’s analysis highlights motions that insurers and their attorneys should consider filing to limit claims in no-fault litigation. It also reveals strategies that insurers and their counsel should consider in responding to motions and arguments commonly raised by no-fault claimants.
Background of Hahn
On October 21, 2016, Kathy Hahn was rear-ended by an intoxicated driver. Hahn received treatment over the next three years for head, neck, and back injuries, which she claimed resulted from the accident. Her auto insurance carrier, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, eventually stopped paying her claims for no-fault benefits, asserting that all of her injuries were resolved by February 2019. State Farm tendered partial payments to Hahn for services provided by two providers, but those providers rejected the payments.
Hahn ultimately sued State Farm and other parties. A trial was held on her claims for personal protection insurance (PIP) benefits against State Farm. The jury returned a verdict that directed Hahn to accept the partial payments and awarded her $600 to add to one of the payments. Hahn moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), which the trial court denied. Instead, the court entered a judgment on the jury verdict and awarded State Farm over $99,500 in case evaluation sanctions.
Issue Spotting in the Real World: What to Watch For
- A plaintiff’s failure to produce records substantiating their claims for no-fault benefits.
Hahn’s first argument on appeal was that the trial court erred when it granted State Farm’s motion in limine to preclude her from presenting evidence of certain medical expenses. During discovery, State Farm requested all records related to any claims for no-fault benefits that Hahn was making as a result of the accident. Hahn’s counsel did not answer the request. After discovery ended, State Farm filed a motion in limine to preclude the introduction of invoices from five providers that Hahn did not disclose before the discovery cut-off. Her counsel did not respond to the motion and never supplemented her earlier discovery responses. The trial court granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. On appeal, Hahn failed to address the basis of the trial court’s decision. Further, under MCR 2.313(B)(2)(b), the trial court had the discretion to sanction Hahn by prohibiting the introduction of documents at trial that she did not previously disclose.
- Situations where a plaintiff isn’t prejudiced by an evidentiary issue or contributed to the problem.
Hahn’s next argument on appeal was that the trial court erred (1) when it denied her motion to exclude or restrict the testimony of a neuropsychologist who conducted an independent medical examination and testified for State Farm, and (2) when it denied her request for an adverse inference instruction. Hahn’s motion was premised on the neuropsychologist’s failure to produce the raw data from her testing until the day that the parties deposed one of Hahn’s treating physicians. The trial court denied Hahn’s motion, ruling that any delay in producing the raw data did not prejudice her. The Court of Appeals agreed and further concluded that the record revealed that Hahn’s counsel caused the delay by failing to serve a subpoena on the vendor who arranged the independent medical examination. The Court also held that Hahn wasn’t entitled to an adverse-inference instruction because she actually received the data.
Hahn also argued on appeal that the trial court improperly permitted State Farm to withhold thousands of pages from its claim file until the beginning of the trial. Although State Farm received Hahn’s request for the updated claim file several weeks before trial, State Farm did not provide the new material until the afternoon before the trial started. Hahn sought a blanket exclusion of all evidence from the updated file. The trial court denied the requested sanction, finding that Hahn was aware long before the trial that she didn’t have the updated file, she didn’t file “an appropriate motion before trial,” and State Farm ultimately provided the updated file. Hahn, unpub op at 5. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling and reasoning. It also noted that Hahn’s counsel did not object to any evidence at trial based on the delayed disclosure or unfair surprise and that Hahn failed to identify on appeal any prejudice caused by the delay.
- A plaintiff’s attempt to claim assigned-away no-fault benefits.
Hahn argued that the trial court erred when it granted State Farm’s motion to preclude her from introducing evidence at trial of claims that she assigned to one of her treatment providers. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, explaining that Hahn relinquished her right to recover those expenses when she executed the assignment.
- A plaintiff’s attempt to exclude their own statements in medical records.
Hahn further argued that the trial court erred by denying her motion to exclude a note in her medical records showing that, one month before the crash, she had severe neck pain radiating into her back. On appeal, Hahn challenged the note on authentication, hearsay, and relevance grounds. The Court of Appeals rejected all of these arguments. The record showed that the note was actually a message Hahn left in a password-protected patient portal, which was automatically placed in her patient file. Thus, State Farm sufficiently authenticated the note. Because Hahn authored the note, it did not qualify as hearsay. See MRE 801(d)(2). Further, even if the note were hearsay, it was admissible because it qualified as a statement made to obtain medical treatment, see MRE 803(4), and the statement was included in records of a regularly conducted business activity, see MRE 803(6). Lastly, the statement was highly relevant to whether the accident caused Hahn’s neck pain and related treatment—a contested issue at trial—and its probative value was not outweighed by any of the dangers identified in MRE 403.
The Takeaway for Insurers and Their Counsel
Hahn reminds litigants that issue spotting isn’t just for law students. Insurers and their counsel should keep a mental (or written) checklist of common scenarios and arguments that frequently arise in no-fault cases. As Hahn demonstrates, raising the right arguments at the right time can lead to great results—like a nominal verdict and nearly $100,000 in case evaluation sanctions.