Evidence of Immigration Status in a Personal Injury Case

Posted on by Ashley E. Mullen in Litigation.

In the case of Ayala v. Lee, 215 Md. App. 457, 81 A.3d 584 (2013), the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland held that evidence of a plaintiff’s status as an undocumented immigrant can be admissible in a personal injury action if the evidence is relevant and not prejudicial.  This lawsuit arose out of a motor vehicle accident in which Rigoberto E. Domingos Ayala and Jose R. Rodas Santacruz sustained severe injuries while they were working for their employer Ebb Tide Tents and Party Rentals.  Ayala, Santacruz, and Ayala’s wife filed a lawsuit against Robert F. Lee, the driver of the truck that struck their vehicle, as well as his employer, Bay State Pool Supplies of Baltimore, Inc., alleging negligence.  A jury returned a verdict for Lee and Bay State and the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland reversed this judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

One of the questions that the Court considered in its appellate review was “[d]id the circuit court abuse its discretion when it denied appellants’ motion in limine to exclude evidence of appellants’ immigration status at trial?”  The appellants had filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of their immigration status arguing that it was irrelevant because it did not bar their right to bring the actions and it was not a defense to appellees’ allegedly illegal and negligent actions.  In the alternative, the appellants argued that their immigration status should be excluded as prejudicial.  At a motions hearing prior to trial, the circuit court ruled that immigration status was relevant and admissible evidence.  In a written opinion, the circuit court noted that the appellants’ claims for future lost wages and future medical expenses put their immigration status at issue because there were questions regarding how “a plaintiff’s immigration status may create a greater likelihood that his earnings will not be earned in the U.S. labor market” and “as to the likelihood that a plaintiff’s future care will not be provided in the expensive U.S. healthcare system.”

In the Court of Special Appeals opinion drafted by Judge Robert Zarnoch, the Court first examined federal law on the issue, and determined that neither the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) nor the United States Supreme Court case of Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 535 U.S. 137 (2002) “mandates denying awards of lost wages or medical expenses to undocumented immigrant employees solely because of their immigration status.”

The Court then went on to examine the relevancy of immigration status to a claim for lost wages and noted that it is relevant “for the simple reason that the legal ability to work affects the likelihood of future earnings in the United States.”  The basis for the relevance of the appellants’ immigration status was established when they sought lost earnings as part of their damages.  Citing to Maryland Rule 5-403, the Court noted that this relevant evidence could be excluded if the probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.  The Court went on to explain, that if a court determines that evidence of a plaintiff’s immigration status is not unfairly prejudicial, the relevance of immigration status “typically relates to whether a party is entitled to lost wages at a United States pay rate or at the home country rate.”  The court noted that this determination is a question of fact for the jury, and depends on the likelihood that the party will stay in the United States as opposed to returning to their country of origin during the time that they are receiving the compensation awarded to them.

The Court next looked to the issue of credibility as it relates to immigration status, finding that while immigration status is not generally admissible for impeachment purposes, the appellants in this case had “clearly opened the door to questions about their immigration status when their answers to interrogatories differed substantively from documents they later submitted as evidence.”

The Court concluded the opinion with a list of potential facts for the jury to weigh regarding the appellants’ immigration status:  1) whether there is an imminent risk of deportation; 2) how long the party has been in the United States; 3) his or her work history in the United States; 4) whether he or she has family in the United States; 5) what the United States wage rate is; and 6) what the comparable home country wage rate would be.  The Court noted that “[a] future jury hearing the damages portion of the trial would benefit from a full exposition of these and other relevant facts, with the circuit judge serving as an alert monitor of any questioning or evidence that veers too far on the side of prejudice.”