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Maryland Appeals Court Considers Personal Injury Claims Brought By Illegal Aliens

February 5, 2014 By Gerald W. Ueckermann, Jr.

Ayala v. Lee involved a suit brought by two undocumented immigrants from El Salvador who were injured in Maryland, while working, when a truck operated by the defendant driver collided with their truck, which was parked on the shoulder of a road. The trial court admitted evidence regarding the plaintiffs’ illegal immigration status, and the jury subsequently found that the defendant driver was not negligent.

On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals held that the trial court should have granted the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment on the issue of liability. It also found that Federal law does not prohibit an undocumented alien from recovering damages for lost earrings or medical expenses solely because of his or her immigration status.  The court next considered whether evidence of the plaintiffs’ status as undocumented immigrants would be relevant and admissible in the damages trial that it was remanding the case for.

The court found that although evidence of immigration status is relevant to claims for lost earnings and medical expenses, a trial court must determine whether admission of such evidence is overly prejudicial. Immigration status is prejudicial if it introduces a factor into the case that might encourage the jury to dislike or disapprove of the plaintiff independent of the merits of his or her claim. If the trial court determines that evidence of immigration status is not unduly prejudicial, then the question becomes whether the plaintiff is entitled to lost earnings based on a United States pay rate or based on the pay rate of his or her home country. Resolution of this question requires the jury to decide the probability that the plaintiff will be deported, or otherwise return to, his or her home country. “Facts for the jury to weigh include: whether there is an imminent risk of deportation; how long the party has been in the United States; his or her work history in the United States; whether he or she has a family in the United States; what the United States wage rate is; and what the comparable home country wage rate would be, among other considerations.” The court also observed that defendants would benefit from securing expert witnesses to testify about the likely pay rates in the plaintiff’s home country.

The Ayala court also considered whether evidence of unlawful immigration status could be used to impeach the credibility of the plaintiffs. The court noted that immigration status alone does not reflect on an individual’s character and is therefore not admissible for impeachment purposes.  During discovery, however, the Ayala plaintiffs provided answers to interrogatories representing that they were legally permitted to work in the United States, and they produced copies of tax returns that included Social Security numbers that they falsely claimed were theirs. Nevertheless, at trial they introduced into evidence copies of applications for asylum that indicated that they were neither United States citizens nor legal residents.  Under these circumstances, the court found that plaintiffs had opened the door to questioning about their immigration status, and that on remand, if the plaintiffs testified, their credibility could be attacked with questions aimed at these apparently inconsistent statements.

Ayala thus establishes that an undocumented immigrant’s unlawful immigration status is relevant and admissible in a personal injury action under certain circumstances. In determining whether evidence regarding immigration status should be admitted, a trial court must determine whether such evidence would be overly prejudicial.