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Eveler v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

July 19, 2017

KAYLEE EVELER et al.
v.
FORD MOTOR CO.

         SECTION I

          ORDER AND REASONS

          LANCE M. AFRICK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are two motions in limine filed by Ford. See R. Doc. Nos. 68, 70. For the following reasons, the motions are granted in part, deferred in part, denied in part, and dismissed as moot in part.

         I.

         Ford moves under Rules 401 and 403 to exclude certain Ford development documents concerning vehicles other that the particular generation of Ford Explorer at issue in this case.

         A.

         “Evidence is relevant if (a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.” Fed.R.Evid. 401. Relevant evidence is admissible unless otherwise provided by the Constitution, a federal statute, another Federal Rule of Evidence, or another rule prescribed by the Supreme Court. Fed.R.Evid. 402.

         Relevant evidence may be excluded “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Fed.R.Evid. 403.

         At the outset, the Court rejects Ford's blanket assertion that any documents relating to Ford vehicles other than the one at issue are necessarily irrelevant. “[T]he standard of relevance in an evidentiary context is not a steep or difficult one to satisfy, ” Pub. Emps. Retirement Sys. of Miss. v. Amedisys, Inc., 769 F.3d 313, 321 (5th Cir. 2014), and many of the documents that Ford seeks to exclude have information regarding the physics of rollovers and rollover testing procedures that are indubitably relevant to evaluating the parties' competing theories of the case.

         Thus, the admissibility of the documents largely turns on Rule 403. Rule 403 is meant to be applied “sparingly.” Baker v. Can. Nat./Ill. Cent. R.R., 536 F.3d 357, 369 (5th Cir. 2008). Therefore, this Court will not entirely exclude all documents referring to Ford vehicles other than the Ford Explorer at issue. That is particularly true as Ford has the ability to mitigate any jury confusion and/or prejudice through the use of cross-examination that points out the differences between, for example, the 2001 Ford Explorer and the Ford Bronco. Knowing the differences between a Ford Explorer and a Ford Bronco is not exactly rocket science, and the Court fully expects that the jurors-most of whom likely own automobiles-will have no trouble being cognizant of the differences. The Court may also be willing to consider providing an appropriate limiting instruction for such exhibits, should Ford propose one.

         The real Rule 403 concern here is whether a particular exhibit would result in “time-consuming mini-trials on [] minimally relevant issues.” In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 113 F.3d 444, 454 (3d Cir. 1997). And having reviewed the plaintiffs' proposed exhibits, some of them certainly threaten to bog the Court and the jury down in time consuming mini-trials, the main purpose of which is to embarrass Ford on issues that have little relevance to the main issues in this case. The Court will exclude some, but not all, of plaintiffs' proposed exhibits.

         With those general principles in mind, the Court turns to Ford's objections to specific documents.

         B.

         Ford moves to exclude any reference to two development documents relating to the Ford Bronco. The Court denies Ford's objections to the two Ford Bronco documents.

         1.

         The first document Ford moves to exclude is a 1973 letter from Ford to NHTSA concerning NHTSA's request for comment regarding the development of a rollover performance standard. Pl. Ex. 41. Ford objects that the document is irrelevant and that plaintiffs cannot lay a foundation necessary to support the argument that the statements in the letter were meant to apply to a sport utility vehicle.

         The central problem with Ford's arguments is that the document is relevant to proper rollover testing procedures-which is a hotly debated issue between the parties-regardless of whether it speaks to the specific issue of whether the 2001 Ford Explorer was defectively designed. For example, Ford's memorandum argues in favor of human-driven rollover tests. See, e.g., Pl. Ex. 41, at 6-7; Pl. Ex. 41, at 22. That directly contradicts Ford's argument in this case that human-driven tests are not based in science. As such, the Court finds that the document-though certainly old-will help the jury evaluate plaintiffs' expert opinion that human-driven rollover tests can be helpful in determining whether a vehicle has a propensity to rollover. The Court notes that Ford can mitigate any unfair prejudice relating to the age of the document with effective cross-examination, particularly given that the jury should have little trouble understanding that technology has advanced since 1973. Therefore, the Court finds that the probative value of plaintiffs' exhibit 41 is not substantially “outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Fed.R.Evid. 403.

         2.

         Ford next moves to exclude a Ford Bronco development document suggesting that Ford should take into account the effect that passengers have on a vehicle's center of gravity when testing for rollover proclivity. Pl. Ex. 49. The exhibit includes a graph suggesting that a vehicle's rollover proclivity increases when there are more passengers in a vehicle. Pl. Ex. 49, at 2. Thus, the exhibit is directly relevant to plaintiffs' theory that the higher a vehicle's center of gravity is-all other things being held equal-the more likely that vehicle is to rollover. That is directly relevant to plaintiff's liability theory, and the Court concludes that Ford can mitigate any unfair prejudice through cross-examination. Therefore, the Court finds that the probative value of plaintiffs' exhibit 49 is not substantially ...


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