No harm from 404(b) evidence

Foremost Insurance declined to pay a claim made by Charles Pendleton about the destruction in a fire of his 1956 Mercedes 190SL (an example of which appears to the right), arguing that he set the fire. A jury agreed and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. One of Pendleton’s grounds was that the district judge exceeded the scope of Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) by allowing evidence about other “similar accidents surrounded by similar circumstances regarding insurance” involving Pendleton. The Court found no harm as “ample evidence” supported the jury’s verdict in favor of Foremost, including the police investigation of the accident scene, further review of the accident by a forensic fire investigator and a mechanic/accident reconstructionist, and evidence about ownership of the other vehicle. Foremost Ins. Co. v. Pendleton, No. 16-60240 (Jan. 13, 2017, unpublished).

Good records defeat tort liability, again.

The unsuccessful plaintiff in Dawson v. RockTenn Services, Inc. sued because of injuries he suffered while delivering sulfuric acid to a paper mill. In yet another opinion that endorses careful recordkeeping, the Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for the defendants: “Under Rock-Tenn’s operating procedures, Martin Transport’s drivers were required to, and apparently did, check that the pressure-release line was ‘free from defects and
void of other materials’ prior to each delivery. Martin Transport’s drivers delivered acid to the mill at least daily, often twice daily, without ever apparently notifying Rock-Tenn of any defect in the pressure-release line. In the absence of any countervailing evidence to suggest that a reasonable person in Rock-Tenn’s position would have undertaken further inspection or maintenance of the pressure-release line, there is no basis for imputing RockTenn with constructive knowledge of an alleged defect in that line.” No. 16-30112 (Dec. 27, 2016, unpublished).

Live long and prosper

live-long-and-prosperRobert dePerrodil successfully sued for the injuries he suffered when a wave hit the boat he was on. He recovered damages based upon his plan to work until age 75; the defendant argued that the “court erred by using the plaintiff’s stated retirement goal, rather than the BLS average.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed, noting that dePerrodil had a “‘very reasonable’ goal, considering his medical history, work history, and future medical prognosis,” distinguishing other cases in the area that turned on more vague testimony. Perrodil v. Bozovic Marine, Inc., No. 16-30009 (Nov. 17, 2016, unpublished).

No harm, no reversal.

what-me-worryGraves v. Colvin provides an exceptionally clear illustration of harmless error:

  1. Graves challenged the Social Security Administration’s determination that she was not disabled.
  2. A regulation governing ALJ hearings on such matters provides: “Occupational evidence provided by a VE or VS [vocational expert or vocational specialist] generally should be consistent with the occupational information supplied by the DOT [“Dictionary of Occupational Titles”] . . . At the hearings level, as part of the adjudicator’s duty to fully develop the record, the adjudicator will inquire, on the record, as to whether or not there is such consistency.”
  3. Graves lost, and argued in court that the ALJ failed to ask this required question.
  4. But — “‘Procedural perfection in administrative proceedings is not required’ as long as ‘the substantial rights of a party have not been affected.’ Graves does not even attempt to show that the vocational expert’s testimony was actually inconsistent with the DOT. Nor has she otherwise demonstrated prejudice. Hence, the ALJ’s procedural error was harmless and does not warrant reversal.”

No. 16-10340 (Sept. 21, 2016).

The “light most favorable” is not a searchlight.

guidinglightIn response to a summary judgment motion in a suit for unpaid overtime, plaintiff Garcia offered affidavit testimony that he “was told” certain favorable salary information. The record was unclear as to who told him that information. On appeal from an adverse ruling, the Court noted: “Garcia first argues that the district court erred by discounting, as hearsay, Garcia’s statement in his affidavit about what he was ‘told,’ because ‘taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Garcia, a party-opponent told Garcia this information.’ However, courts are not required to view evidence presented at summary judgment in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party on the question of admissibility; rather, ‘the content of summary judgment evidence must be generally admissible,’ and ‘[i]t is black-letter law that hearsay evidence cannot be considered on summary judgment’ for the truth of the matter asserted.” Garcia v. U Pull It Auto Truck Salvage, Inc., No. 16-20257 (Sept. 15, 2016, unpublished).

Keep the gate!

no pass lotrCarlson alleged injuries from the ProNeuroLight, an infrared therapy device. At trial, the defendants called a chiropractor with some experience using the device. The Fifth Circuit expressed skepticism about his qualifications, noting: “While he does make diagnoses and orders tests as part of his chiropractic and alternative medicine practice, [his] qualifications do not align with or support his challenged medical causation testimony.” The Court did not rule on that basis, however, instead finding that “a district court must . . . perform its gatekeeping function by performing some type of Daubert inquiry and by making findings about the witness’s qualifications to give expert testimony.”  Here, admitting the chiropractor’s testimony without taking those steps was an abuse of discretion. The Court found harm, noting that he was the sole defense witness, that his testimony was cited in closing, and that the defendants won. Accordingly, it reversed and remanded. Carlson v. Bioremedic Therapeutic Systems, Inc., No. 14-20691 (May 16, 2016).

This is a conclusory affidavit.

affidavit memeThe plaintiff in Stagliano v. Cincinnati Ins. Co. submitted this expert affidavit to establish that alleged hail damage occurred within the insurance policy period.  No. 15-10137 (Dec. 11, 2015, unpublished).  The affidavit did not succeed, as the Fifth Circuit found it “was little more  that an allusion to his credentials, a recitation of the hail damage observed, and a conclusory, ‘subjective opinion’ that the damage resulted from a hail storm within the policy period.”  Footnote 2 reviews a “perceived . . . tension between the admissibility requirements for expert testimony and the burdens at summary judgment when expert affidavits are utilized” in a past opinion of the Court.

A penny for your damages –

Tflatlinereaty Energy sued for its damages after an involuntary bankruptcy petition against it was dismissed.   One of its claims sought damages for losses in connection with attempts to sell its restricted stock during that period.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants, noting: (1) “Though the sales price of restricted shares did fluctuate, it averaged 0.5¢ immediately before, during, and after the pendency of the involuntary petition, and (2) the affiant about an alleged plan to sell restricted shares at a substantial discount lacked personal knowledge, claiming only that he “did assist in the process when requested, which included gathering information when given direct instructions by his superiors.”  Treaty Energy Corp. v. Hallin, No. 15-30113 (Oct. 27, 2015, unpublished).

 

I’m a doctor, not a spoliator.

mccoyGuzman sued Celadon Trucking for personal injuries.  On May 9, 2011, Celadon’s counsel asked him to undergo an independent medical exam.  On May 27, Guzman said in his deposition that he intended to undergo back surgery. Celadon later contended that his surgery constituted spoliation of evidence, and requested an adverse jury instruction. The Fifth Circuit affirmed its denial, noting: “After [Celadon’s counsel] received this disclosure in the deposition, they made no request to be informed of his surgery date, nor did they ask that he delay surgery pending his examination. Only after the examination was completed did [they] assert that the surgery had meaningfully altered evidence.  While the timing of Guzman’s surgery may seem strange, there is no evidence to suggest that he acted in a manner intended to deceive [Celadon] or that he undertook the surgery with the intent of destroying or altering evidence.”  Guzman v. Jones, No. 15-40007 (Oct. 22, 2015).

No flip-flip about the flip-flop

jackup rigMyers slipped in the shower while working aboard a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  In an echo of Blanton v. Newton Associates (a recent employment cases that turned on a prompt investigation into the facts), the rig operator quickly obtained a statement from Myers that said: “When getting out of shower, my shower shoe on left foot broke causing my left foot to slip and twist and resulted in falling out of shower.”  When Myers took an inconsistent position in trial (arguing that he fell because of inadequate rails and mats), this statement was key to affirmance of a defense judgment.  The Fifth Circuit also rejected an argument about the trial court’s review of the evidence: “Myers does not allege that the court did not see the flip flops; instead, he appears to object to the court’s failure to inspect them more closely. . . . When physical evidence is introduced at a bench trial, neither caselaw nor common sense establishes a minimum distance the judge must be from that evidence before the judge’s obligation to consider the evidence is satisfied.”  Myers v. Hercules Offshore Services, No. 15-30020 (Sept. 25, 2015, unpublished).

How not to prove agency

agent-matrixIn resolving a personal jurisdiction issue that turned on a party’s agency, the Fifth Circuit observed:

  • While a statement by a purported agent may not be hearsay, it is not admissible to establish “the existence or scope” of agency; and
  • Correspondence that was not specifically directed to the plaintiffs does not establish agency by estoppel.

Sealed Appellant v. Sealed Appellee, No. 14-20204 (Aug. 17, 2015, unpublished).