CTLA Amicus Efforts: Rawls v. Progressive Northern Insurance Company

by Cindy Bott, Co-Chair, CTLA Amicus Committee

The Supreme Court recently granted CTLA’s application to appear and file an amicus brief in Ronald Rawls v. Progressive Northern Insurance Company, 130 Conn. App. 502 (Aug. 2, 2011), cert. granted.  The plaintiff is represented by CTLA member Nate Nasser.  After the Appellate Court reversed a jury verdict in favor of his client in Rawls, an underinsured motorist case involving injuries sustained in a rear end collision, Nate filed a petition for certification, which was granted on September 28, 2011. 

CTLA pursued amicus status to support the plaintiff here because the net effect of the Appellate Court’s decision is to suggest, if not require, the need for plaintiffs to establish liability in such cases by use of eyewitness testimony.  The CTLA finds this suggestion to be incorrect and contrary to Connecticut law. 

Rawls involves a rear-end collision, in which the plaintiff was stopped behind another car at a traffic light.  When struck by the tortfeasor’s car, the plaintiff was knocked unconscious.  Not surprisingly, he never saw the tortfeasor’s car approaching from behind before impact.  The plaintiff did, however, testify about many circumstances of the accident, including his path of travel, the loud sound and hard impact felt from behind, the damage to the front and rear of his car and the damage to the rear of the car stopped in front of his.  In addition, a police officer testified about the findings of his investigation including the position of the three cars resting against one another in the same direction.  The tortfeasor was uncooperative with the police officer, so the officer was unable to take a statement from him. 

After the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant moved to set aside the verdict.  The trial court denied the motion.  On appeal, the Appellate Court, in a decision written by Judge Alvord, reversed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to set aside.  In doing so, the Appellate Court summarily dismissed the plaintiff’s testimony about his recollection of the accident.  Instead, CTLA contends, it placed undue emphasis on the fact the plaintiff had not seen the tortfeasor’s car hit him and was unaware how the tortfeasor had been driving his car prior to impact.  Holding there was insufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer negligence the court concluded “it was as though there was no eyewitness testimony at all to support the plaintiff’s allegations.”  130 Conn. App. at 509.

The CTLA contends that the Appellate Court improperly elevated the plaintiff’s burden of proof by suggesting that eyewitness testimony was required to prove the case, while simultaneously discounting relevant, admissible circumstantial evidence that was sufficient to prove the plaintiff’s case. 

Cindy Bott (cbott@koskoff.com) practices at Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, P.C. in Bridgeport.  She, Karen Clark (kclark@kou-law.com) and Kathy Calibey (kcalibey@riscassidavis.com) are Co-Chairs of the CTLA Amicus Committee.

Editor’s note:

CTLA’s amicus efforts on issues important to Connecticut trial lawyers and their clients are important, but not well understood.  The CTLA is fortunate to have an active amicus committee that carefully reviews cases to find and support important civil justice issues.  The purpose of CTLA’s amicus efforts is not to advocate for individual clients, but to protect legal principles important to ensuring a fair civil justice system.  There can be no civil justice without a level playing field.   

The Amicus Committee has written the following examples of criteria it considers when deciding whether to participate as an amicus:

  1. Whether the case is pending in either the Supreme or Appellate Court;

  2. Whether an Amicus Brief will benefit the Court and will address issues not already briefed; and,

  3. Whether the question presented an important one that:

    1. Is in furtherance of the CTLA’s general goal of preserving the rights of injury victims and maintaining full and fair access for injury victims to redress in the courts;

    2. Raises an important or novel issue likely to affect injury victims beyond the plaintiff in this particular case;

    3. Will develop, clarify or harmonize the law;

    4. Is a question of first impression in Connecticut;

    5. Calls for the application of a new principle or policy;

    6. The resolution of which has potential statewide impact;

    7. Is likely to recur without a definitive decision by the Appellate/Supreme Court;

    8. Presents a potential conflict between a federal appellate court ruling on state law and the absence of a definitive decision on the same legal question by the Connecticut Supreme Court; and/or,

    9. Involves a significant issue of constitutional law that may affect clients of CTLA members on a statewide basis.

If you believe your client’s case meets these criteria, please contact one of the Committee’s Co-Chairs, CTLA’s Executive Director Neil Ferstand at nferstand@cttriallawyers.org or 860-522-4345 or CTLA President, John Kennedy (jkennedy@kennedyjohnson.com) to have the matter reviewed for CTLA amicus involvement.