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Photos of Property Damages Admissibility Without Expert Testimony

Garvin v. Malone, 2016 Tenn. App. LEXIS 163 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 26, 2016).

In this significant ruling, the Court distinguished the facts of this case from those seen in Hardeman County v. McIntyre. 420 S.W.3d 742 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013), as it relates to the admissibility of photographic evidence depicting damages to a car after a motor vehicle accident. The case in Hardeman involved a negligence claim which arose out of a motor vehicle collision in which the defendant’s vehicle collided with an ambulance driven by the plaintiff. In that case the Court of Appeals had to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting photographs to the jury depicting damages to the defendant’s car for the purpose of establishing that the plaintiff, ambulance driver, was speeding at the time of the collision.

The Hardeman Court determined that while the record included photographs showing that defendant’s car had suffered a “substantial” impact, the record lacked any other evidence from which the jury could infer excessive speed from the circumstances. The Hardeman Court reversed the trial court’s judgment that the plaintiff, ambulance driver, was negligent, explaining that speed may not be inferred merely from photographs depicting damage to the vehicle as a result of a collision. Instead, the Hardeman Court explained that the jury must have additional evidence, such as skid marks on the road or expert testimony, to determine a vehicle’s speed.

Unlike the case in Hardeman, the Court of Appeals in Garvin v. McIntyre confirmed the trial court’s ruling in admitting photographs depicting minor damages to the rear-end of the plaintiff’s vehicle for the purpose of impeaching the plaintiff’s credibility. This case also involved a negligence claim arising out of motor vehicle accident. During the trial of the case the plaintiffs testified that when the defendant’s van rear-ended their car, it caused a “heavy impact” to their vehicle. In admitting photographs taken by the defendant of the vehicles immediately after the collision, the Court gave the jury a limiting instruction stating that the jury was only authorized to consider the photographs to impeach or contradict the testimony heard from the plaintiffs. However, the jury was instructed not to consider the photos of the vehicles to determine the correlation of the damages to the seriousness of the injuries involved.

After ruling that the defendant was not at-fault, the plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the photographs were inadmissible in the absence of expert testimony. In support of their position, the plaintiffs cited Hardeman, however the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling to admit the photographs, finding that this case was distinguishable from the facts seen in Hardeman. The court noted that unlike Hardeman, speed was not an issue. The Court noted that the defendant was entitled to introduce the photographs to discredit the contentions made by the plaintiffs that the vehicle collision caused a “heavy impact.”

As a result, the ruling in Garvin should open the door for defendants in motor vehicle accident lawsuits to admit photographic evidence depicting vehicle damages for the purpose of impeaching a plaintiff’s credibility, even in the absence of expert testimony.

For more information, please contact Sean W. Martin at swmartin@carrallison.com. Logan Threadgill (lthreadgill@carrallison.com), associate in the Chattanooga office assisted with this post.

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