LAW 6330 (4 credits)
Professor Pedro A. Malavet
Rozier v. Ford Motor Co., 573 F.2d 1332 (5th Cir. 1978) (Edited)
[As I wrote in my webnotes, this case has a really good evidentiary discussion, which distinguishes logical relevance (FRE 401/402) and pragmatic (practical) relevance (FRE 403). Though most of the court's opinion is devoted to the discovery violation that leads it to grant a new trial, I transcribe below it's discussion of the FRE 401, 402 and 403 issues raised by the admission of the second driver's manslaughter conviction.]
Goldberg and Simpson, Circuit Judges, and Freeman, District Judge. *
* District Judge of the Northern District of Georgia, sitting by designation.
SIMPSON, Circuit Judge
I. THE FACTS
On March 13, 1973, the 1969 Ford Galaxie 500 in which William Rozier was riding as a passenger on a Georgia public highway was struck from behind by a faster moving vehicle driven by Benjamin J. Wilson, Jr. The impact caused the Ford's fuel tank to rupture, resulting in a fire which engulfed the car and severely burned Mr. Rozier. Within 24 hours, he died as a result of the burns he sustained. On August 26, 1974, his widow, Martha Ann Brundage Rozier, filed suit below against Ford Motor Company (Ford), based on diversity jurisdiction (Title 28, U.S.C., ß 1332), alleging that Ford's negligent design of the 1969 Galaxie's fuel tank caused the death of her husband. After a one week trial, the jury returned a verdict for Ford. Judgment was entered on March 6, 1976, and Mrs. Rozier timely filed her notice of appeal to this Court, No. 76-2848. During the pendency of that appeal, counsel for Mrs. Rozier learned of the existence of a document prepared by a Ford cost engineer, A. Mancini, in 1971 and arguably covered by plaintiff's interrogatories in this case, as limited by an order of the trial judge entered on January 6, 1976. Because Ford had failed to produce this document in response to the court's order, Mrs. Rozier, on February 9, 1977, filed a motion for a new trial pursuant to Rule 60(b)(2), Fed.R.Civ.P., newly discovered evidence, and 60(b)(3), fraud, misrepresentation, and other misconduct. After hearing oral arguments and considering briefs and affidavits filed by the parties, the district court denied the motion on all grounds. Mrs. Rozier's appeal from this later order, No. 77-1929, has been consolidated with her appeal from the original judgment.
III. THE EVIDENTIARY QUESTION
In her original appeal, Mrs. Rozier alleged that the district court erred in admitting into evidence over plaintiff's objection the plea of guilty by Benjamin Wilson, the driver of the impacting vehicle, to charges of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Mr. Rozier and Frank Mitchell, the driver of the Ford Galaxie. Although not necessary to our disposition of this appeal, we address this issue because of the near certainty that the question will arise at a new trial.
Ford introduced a certified copy of Wilson's guilty plea for two stated purposes: (1) to corroborate the testimony of the investigating officer, Trooper Swindell, that Wilson's car was traveling at approximately 68 m.p.h. at the moment of impact, and (2) as evidence that Mr. Rozier's death was caused by Wilson's criminal act and not by Ford's negligence. While we agree with Ford that this evidence is not excluded by the hearsay rule by virtue of Rule 803(22), Fed.R.Evid., we hold that it is inadmissible under the test for legal relevancy set forth in Rule 403.
Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, admissibility is predicated on more than mere logical relevance:
- Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence. Fed.R.Evid. 403.
In determining legal relevance under Rule 403, the trial judge has broad discretion, reviewable only for abuse. United States v. Johnson, 558 F.2d 744 (5th Cir. 1977); United States v. Bailey, 537 F.2d 845 (5th Cir. 1976).
As relevant to the speed of Wilson's car, there is little question that the guilty plea amounted to a "needless presentation of cumulative evidence". Trooper Swindell testified that the impact speed was about 68 m.p.h., and that figure is recorded on his accident report, Defendant's Exhibit 19, and on the speeding citation that he issued to Wilson, Defendant's Exhibit 20. n15 Additionally, plaintiff did not dispute that Wilson was traveling at 68 m.p.h. Wilson's speed was never a contested issue at trial. Whether admission of this cumulative evidence of speed constituted an abuse of discretion under Rule 403 we need not decide in light of the discussion which follows.
- n15 Trooper Swindell also testified that when he arrived at the scene shortly after the accident, he observed that the speedometer on Wilson's car was stuck at 68 m.p.h. By the time the speedometer was photographed, however, it had slipped to the 57 m.p.h. mark. Photographs of the speedometer in this position were admitted into evidence. Plaintiff's Exhibits 24 and 25.
We recognize that Wilson's guilty plea was logically relevant to the issue of causation in that, by the plea, Wilson admitted that he "did cause the death of William Burel Rozier". We conclude, however, that the slight probative value of this evidence was clearly outweighed by the danger that it would confuse and mislead the jury.
The legal concepts of cause in fact, proximate cause, and policy cause are confusing in any case, especially one such as this involving the doctrine of "second collision" injuries. Under the second collision principle,
- there is no rational basis for limiting the manufacturer's liability to those instances where a structural defect has caused the collision and resulting injury. This is so because even if a collision is not caused by a structural defect, a collision may precipitate the malfunction of a defective part and cause injury. In that circumstance the collision, the defect, and the injury are interdependent and should be viewed as a combined event. Such an event is the foreseeable risk that a manufacturer should assume. Huff v. White Motor Corp., 565 F.2d 104, 109 (7th Cir. 1977).
There are thus several dimensions to the cause question in this case. On a purely factual level, Mr. Rozier's death was caused by a variety of factors, among them the impact of Wilson's car as well as the design of the Galaxie fuel tank. The legal cause of death, however, must be evaluated in the context of the social policies sought to be advanced by attaching liability to the consequences of specific actions by specific persons. As Professor Prosser explains, "once it is established that the defendant's conduct has in fact been one of the causes of the plaintiff's injury, there remains the question whether the defendant should be legally responsible for what he has caused". W. Prosser, Handbook of the Law of Torts 244 (4th ed. 1971). In this case, the State of Georgia charged Wilson with causing the death of Mr. Rozier in an effort to enforce its traffic laws; in terms of this important social interest, it makes sense to hold the driver of a speeding vehicle responsible for damage inflicted by it. Georgia also allows a private action in damages against an automobile manufacturer who negligently produces a car with a defect which causes injury when activated by a foreseeable collision; thus, in the context of encouraging automotive safety, Georgia law has determined that the negligent manufacturer "causes" second collision injuries even though the primary collision was caused by a third party.
The jury in this case hardly needed Wilson's guilty plea to demonstrate what had caused the accident in which Mr. Rozier lost his life. The fact of the accident was conceded by the plaintiff, and numerous photographs put in evidence by both parties graphically depicted the devastating consequences of the impact. Certainly, the jury realized that the fuel tank would not have ruptured had it not been for the crushing blow inflicted by Wilson's car.
The real purpose for introducing the guilty plea would seem to be as evidence of legal cause. It is here that the danger of confusion arises. n16 Because Wilson's admission of responsibility for Mr. Rozier's death was made in the context of a criminal action to deter reckless driving, its relevance in a civil action based on a legal doctrine presumably intended to deter the negligent manufacture of automobiles is attenuated at best. The liability which Wilson admitted in his guilty plea is based on a different social policy than that [**39] with which Mrs. Rozier charged Ford Motor Company. Furthermore, the second collision doctrine assumes that the primary collision is caused by a party other than the manufacturer. Here, Mrs. Rozier has alleged that the primary collision with Wilson caused the secondary collision with the fuel tank which, in turn, caused the death of her husband by creating the fire that incinerated him. The key question in the case is whether Ford owed a duty to Mr. Rozier to build a fuel tank that could withstand an impact such as that inflicted by Wilson's car. If Ford owed such a duty then, other considerations aside, Ford caused Mr. Rozier's death. We think that the interrelationship between cause and duty in the second collision context was difficult enough for the jury to grasp so that it should not have been further complicated by the unnecessary, confusing, and potentially misleading element of the Wilson guilty plea. We hold that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting this evidence.
- n16 Arguably, this evidence was not offered to prove a factual proposition at all, but rather to support a legal position - that the Wilson guilty plea determined the issue of legal responsibility for the death of William Rozier. Of course, the guilty plea would be entitled to no collateral estoppel effect in this case. But, as Prosser explains, the question of factual cause is often difficult to separate from that of legal cause. The question, writes Prosser, is "whether the policy of law will extend the responsibility for the conduct to the consequences which have in fact occurred. Quite often this has been stated, and properly so, as an issue of whether the defendant is under any duty to the plaintiff . . . . This is not a question of causation, or even a question of fact . . . and the attempt to deal with it in such terms has led and can lead only to utter confusion". W. Prosser, supra, at 244.
Although we find an abuse of discretion, our holding is not that this error would, in itself, have required reversal. Plaintiff's counsel had an opportunity to subpoena Mr. Wilson to question him about the circumstances surrounding the plea and could have argued to the jury that by his plea of guilty, Wilson did not absolve Ford of liability for negligent design of the fuel tank. Additionally, we note that the able trial judge may have been led astray by the contradictory and often merely conclusory arguments for and against admissibility made by counsel for both sides. Initially, in arguing a pretrial motion, plaintiff's counsel took the position that the guilty plea was inadmissible to impeach Wilson's testimony; the court then ruled in favor of Ford that such evidence was admissible on cross-examination under Rule 609(a), Fed.R.Evid. T. 10-11. During the trial, however, neither party called Wilson as a witness. In cross-examining Trooper Swindell, counsel for Ford elicited testimony concerning the manslaughter charge against Wilson. In response to an objection by plaintiff's counsel, Ford assured the court that the information sought was relevant to the issue of speed. T. 68. At the close of the testimony, Ford tendered and the court admitted over plaintiff's objection the plea and judgment of conviction of Wilson. At this point, Ford explained that the plea was relevant "to illustrate an admission by a person involved in the occurrence of responsibility for the occurrence". The court sought a contrary argument from plaintiff's counsel and was assured, seven times, that the plea was either "irrelevant", "totally irrelevant", or "absolutely irrelevant" but never told why. Apparently impressed that counsel could generate so much heat with no light, the court overruled the objection. T. 1132-39.
The record in this case establishes that defendant Ford was aware of a document in its files relevant to the plaintiff's case, sought by the plaintiff through interrogatories, and included within a discovery order, but that it failed to disclose the document or to amend its response to an interrogatory, falsely stating that it was unable to locate such a document. Ford's misconduct prejudiced the plaintiff by denying her information which might well have reshaped the case she ultimately presented to the jury. Under these circumstances, plaintiff's timely motion for a new trial pursuant to Rule 60(b)(3) should have been granted. We reverse the district court's denial of the 60(b)(3) motion and remand this case for a new trial. Additionally, because any probative value that it might have is substantially outweighed by the danger of confusing the issues and misleading the jury, we hold that evidence of Wilson's guilty plea to manslaughter charges arising out of the fatal collision in this case is inadmissible under Rule 403, Fed.R.Evid.
REVERSED and REMANDED, with directions.