Ethics in Brief

Ethics in Brief is designed to present ethical issues that practitioners might well face on a daily basis. It is a service of the Legal Ethics Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association.

Riding Too Close to the Ethical Line

As a group, trial lawyers often view themselves as “truth seekers.”  Their role in the litigation process is to help a jury see the “realities” in a case which have sometimes been skewed by opposing counsel’s clouding of the issues and obscuring of the facts.  Even trial judges may – it often seems – obfuscate the “truth” by applying the rules of evidence to exclude “highly relevant” facts. A recent case serves as an important warning to overzealous “truth seekers.”

In Martinez v. Department of Transportation (2015) 238 Cal.App.4th 559, Donn Martinez – a member of a motorcycle gang known as the “Set Free Soldiers” – was permanently injured riding in a funeral procession for a fellow “soldier.”  Martinez filed a personal injury lawsuit against the State alleging Caltrans was negligent in constructing and maintaining the Orange County overpass (known as the “Orange Crush”) where the accident occurred.

At trial, Martinez presented evidence that he was an ordained minister by “Set Free Ministries.”  Counsel for Caltrans believed this image of plaintiff was misleading, and therefore sought to introduce evidence of Martinez’s lifestyle, including his biker affiliation and the group’s logo of a “skull-like face” wearing a Nazi-style helmet.  The trial court precluded this evidence in its rulings on plaintiff’s pre-trial in limine motions. Counsel for Caltrans skirted the trial court’s in limine rulings believing that her questions were within the bounds of those rulings and/or justified by the misleading evidence presented by Martinez’s attorney.

On appeal, the reviewing court found Caltrans’s counsel guilty of “egregious attorney misconduct.” Id. at 561. The Court of Appeal found repeated references to the word “Nazi” by counsel for Caltrans were “toxic” in that they allowed the jury to find in favor of Caltrans, “secure in the knowledge that Martinez was just a low-life biker with an affinity for ‘Nazi’ paraphernalia.”  Id. at 569. The underlying judgment in favor of Caltrans was reversed, and the agency’s counsel was reported to the State Bar. Id. at 570.  

-- David Niddrie

**No portion of this summary is intended to constitute legal advice. Be sure to perform independent research and analysis. Any views expressed are those of the author only and not of the SDCBA or its Legal Ethics Committee.**