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New trial for accident near St. Louis Taco Bell

A woman who received a $1.5 million verdict in 2018 for a T-bone crash near a Taco Bell restaurant in St. Louis must take her case to trial for a second time as a result of a ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District.

On Dec. 24, the court ruled that the judge overseeing the case, St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael W. Noble, erred in denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial because the plaintiff made improper references to her liability insurer throughout the trial.

Plaintiff Anastasia Collier sued Andrea Steinbach for negligence in 2017 following a motor-vehicle accident. Collier alleged she was traveling north on Hampton Avenue when Steinbach was traveling south and turned left in front of her into the driveway of a Taco Bell, causing a T-bone crash.

Collier alleged that because of the crash, she suffered severe and permanent damage to her ribs, loss of enjoyment of life, reduced capacity to work, inconvenience, pain, suffering and emotional distress.

At trial in June 2018, Collier’s attorney expressly referred to Steinbach’s liability insurer during opening statements and closing arguments, and called an employee of the insurer to testify as well as an investigator retained by the insurer, according to the opinion written by Judge Lisa P. Page.

The jury awarded $1.5 million but found Collier to be 20 percent at fault, reducing the award by $300,000.

Noble denied Steinbach’s post-trial motion for a new trial and entered the judgment against Steinbach, which prompted her appeal.

On appeal, she argued Noble erred in allowing Collier to make prejudicial references to and present evidence of Steinbach’s liability insurer throughout the trial.

Page said Collier sought to proactively mitigate potentially harmful evidence from the surveillance of her post-accident conduct, assuming Steinbach would introduce it later as part of her defense.

Even if Collier’s assumption that Steinbach would introduce that evidence later was correct, the investigation was not relevant or admissible unless or until Steinbach introduced it, Page said. Collier’s “premature, tactical” use of the insurer’s involvement was beyond “flaunted’ to the jury, which is prohibited by a 2005 Western District ruling in Pope v. Pope, the judge added.

“In fact, it constituted an effective weaponization of a narrow exception to the general rule prohibiting its admission,” Page said. “Thus, it is unequivocal reversible error to admit insurance coverage as relevant and material evidence to mitigate other, potentially damaging evidence that may or may not be introduced later at trial by the defense.”

Judges Philip M. Hess and Kurt S. Odenwald concurred.

Chris Finney of Finney Injury Law in St. Louis represented Collier. He said he disagrees with the ruling.

“We’re disappointed in the court’s opinion and rationale, and we look forward to the next steps in how to handle it,” he said.

David P. Bub of Brown & James in St. Louis represented Steinbach. He did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The case is Collier v. Steinbach, ED107154.