Navigating the Rules of Evidence: How They Can Impact Your Lawsuit and the Jury’s Perception

crane_load_crane_crane-1024x683When you are preparing for a lawsuit, it is crucial to understand what evidence you will be allowed to present in support of your claim. On the flip side, if there is evidence you do not think the other party should be able to present, you can file a motion to try to exclude that evidence. Rulings on evidence can have a major effect on a case because they limit what a jury gets to see or hear. 

In product liability lawsuits, it is essential to understand the various parties involved in the manufacture and sale of the at-issue equipment. The following lawsuit out of St. Charles Parish Louisiana shows the importance of understanding the rules of evidence and when and how to produce evidence at trial.

Grove U.S. LLC manufactured, sold, and delivered the at-issue Grove crane to H&E Equipment Services. H&E then leased the crane to Dow Chemical to use in Taft, Louisiana. While in use Grove sent H&E a notice of a Product Improvement Program related to issues involving the crane’s boom extension and structural deficiencies. H&E was authorized to repair because it was an authorized distributor. A manager at H&E contacted the crane’s supervisor at Dow to make the repairs. Dow’s supervisor said they would remove the parts instead of permitting H&E to do so. 

Chad Wehrlin was one of the employees at Dow tasked with removing the crane’s boom extension. While doing so, Wehrlin relied upon a label on the boom extension and the placement of four metal eyes welded to the boom extension when it was manufactured. Wehrlin thought the label provided information on the center of gravity for just the boom extension, not all sections, and determined how to rig the machine accordingly. He also thought the four metal eyes were positioned at the top of the extension in order to have the correct center of gravity. These assumptions proved incorrect, and Wehrlin was injured. 

Dow provided medical and indemnity benefits to Wehrlin through the worker’s compensation program. Wehrlin and his wife then filed a lawsuit against Grove, the crane’s manufacturer, under the Louisiana Products Liability Act, La. R.S. 9:2800.51. After a multi-day trial, the jury found Grove 25%, Dow 40% at fault, and Wehrlin 35% at fault.  Both Grove and  Wehrlin appealed. 

On appeal, Wehrlin argued the trial court abused its discretion by granting Grove’s motion to exclude evidence related to Grove’s statutory duty to warn after a sale under La. R.S. 9:2800.57(C). Wehrlin claimed Grove knew the crane was unreasonably dangerous and failed to warn post-sale users adequately. 

On appeal, the trial court is afforded great discretion related to evidence-related matters. The appellate court determines whether the district court abused its discretion in excluding the evidence. Here, none of Wehrlins’ experts or their pre-trial order claimed Grove had a post-sale duty to warn. Wehrlin’s motion for summary judgment also did not reference this. So, the first time Wehrlin raised the issue was when they submitted a revised proposed jury verdict form. As a result, the appellate court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence related to a post-sale duty to warn claim because the prejudicial impact of it outweighed any probative value. 

This was also supported by Wehrlins’ delay in asserting the claim. Wehrlin also argued the trial court erred in excluding testimony from Grove’s product safety director because it was improper impeachment evidence. Again, the appellate court agreed the evidence’s probate value was outweighed by possible unfair prejudice, confusion, or misleading the jury. 

Lastly, Wehrlin argued the jury manifestly erred in allocating fault to the different parties based upon the evidence presented. In Wehrlin’s view, the fault should have been allocated to Grove 50%, Dow 25%, and Wehrlin 25%. However, in considering the different parties’ awareness of the danger, the level of risk, significance, capacities of the actors, and extenuating circumstances, the appellate court held the jury’s allocation of fault to the different parties was reasonable. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s award of damages to Wehrlin and the jury’s assignment of fault to all involved parties. 

The appellate court’s review of the exclusion of evidence in the Grove crane lawsuit underscores the importance of timely raising relevant claims and presenting probative evidence. By working with a knowledgeable attorney who understands the intricacies of evidence rules, you can ensure that the appropriate evidence is presented to the jury, increasing your chances of a favorable outcome in your lawsuit.

Additional Sources: Chad Wehrlin and Michelle Wehrlin, Individually, and on Behalf of Their Minor Children, Bailey Wehrlin and Korey Miller v. The Manitowoc Co., Inc., H&e Equipment Services, Inc., and XYZ Corp.

Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on Motions in Limine: St. John the Baptist Parish Car Accident Lawsuit Fails for Lack of Evidence

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