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Burke v. Maryland Auto Insurance Fund

August 4, 2005

TAUHEED BURKE, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
MARYLAND AUTO INSURANCE FUND, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-3748-02). (Hon. Melvin R. Wright, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge

Submitted March 17, 2005

Before WAGNER, Chief Judge, and TERRY and GLICKMAN, Associate Judges.

Appellants Tauheed Burke, Dashon Sterling, and Franklin Jeffries filed this action in the Superior Court against appellee Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund ("MAIF"), seeking compensation under the uninsured motorist provision of Mr. Burke's automobile insurance policy for injuries that they suffered in an accident involving an unidentified motorist. At the close of appellants' case, MAIF moved for a directed verdict pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 (a)(1).*fn1 The court granted the motion and entered judgment in MAIF's favor. We affirm that judgment.

I.

On the evening of October 13, 2001, the car in which appellants were riding was involved in a rear-end collision on Interstate Route 295 in the District of Columbia. Appellants' car*fn2 was stopped on an entrance ramp, waiting to merge into the flow of traffic on the interstate, when it was struck from behind by another car. When appellants said they were going to call the police to report the accident, the man driving the other car "crept back into his car, got off and speeded off real quick." Then, according to Mr. Burke, "what we did, all of us, looked at his license plate. So, at that time, we wrote the license plate down, and then we called the police to figure out what we needed to do . . . ."*fn3 Appellants then went to a nearby police station and filed an accident report. All three men testified as to the damages they sustained as a result of the collision, both personal injuries and lost wages; in addition, Mr. Burke sought to recover damages for the harm done to his car.

Mr. Burke testified that he learned the identity of the registered owner of the other car,*fn4 but the court prevented him from revealing that person's name on the ground that it was hearsay, in that it came from an uncertified copy of a document from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration ("MVA"). In addition, appellants' counsel asked Mr. Jeffries to verify that the license plate he and Mr. Burke observed as the other car left the scene was traced by the Maryland MVA. In conjunction with Mr. Jeffries' testimony, appellants sought to introduce an MVA document related to the trace, which allegedly contained information that the car in question was uninsured as of May 10, 2001. The court ruled that it could not accept the document as a "certified copy," since appellants had failed to call any witness from the MVA who could authenticate the document. The court also noted that the document did not prove that the car was uninsured on October 13, the date of the accident. Appellants do not challenge the latter ruling on appeal.

II.

Appellants contend that the trial court erred when it granted MAIF's motion for a directed verdict, asserting that they "made a prima facie case for an uninsured motor vehicle accident." A directed verdict, now known as a judgment as a matter of law, "is proper 'if during a trial by jury [the plaintiff] has been fully heard with respect to [a claim], and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to have found' in the plaintiff's favor." Burke v. Scaggs, 867 A.2d 213, 217 (D.C. 2005) (quoting Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 (a)(1); other citation omitted). In deciding whether a directed verdict is appropriate, a court must keep in mind that it is not the trier of fact, and should therefore "take care to avoid weighing the evidence, passing on the credibility of witnesses, or substituting its judgment for that of the jury." Corley v. BP Oil Corp., 402 A.2d 1258, 1263 (D.C. 1979); see Robinson v. Group Health Ass'n, 691 A.2d 1147, 1150-1151 (D.C. 1997). Thus "a verdict [for the defendant] may be directed only if it is clear that the plaintiff has not established a prima facie case." Clement v. Peoples Drug Store, Inc., 634 A.2d 425, 427 (D.C. 1993) (citation omitted). In other words, as long as there is "some evidence from which jurors could find" that the plaintiff has met his burden, the trial court "must not grant a directed verdict." Abebe v. Benitez, 667 A.2d 834, 836 (D.C. 1995) (citations omitted). On appeal, we must view the evidence in the light "most favorabl[e] to the party against whom the motion is made, and that party must be given the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the evidence." Corley, 402 A.2d at 1263 (citations omitted); accord, Abebe, 667 A.2d at 836.

Because appellants were seeking to recover damages based on an uninsured motorist claim against MAIF, it was their burden to show that the other vehicle involved in the collision was, in fact, uninsured. The relevant portion of the District of Columbia Code defines "uninsured motor vehicle" as a vehicle which:

(A) Is a motor vehicle which is not insured by a motor vehicle liability policy applicable to the accident;

(B) Is covered by a motor vehicle liability policy of insurance but the insured denies coverage for any reason or becomes the subject of insolvency proceedings in any jurisdiction; or

(C) Is a motor vehicle which causes bodily injury or property damage and whose owner or operator cannot be identified.

D.C. Code ยง 31-2406 (f)(1) (A-C) (2001). Viewing the evidence, as we must, in the light most favorable to appellants, we conclude that they have failed to show that the vehicle ...


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