Motion in Limine to Exclude Type of Motorcycle Plaintiff Was Riding

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, MARYLAND
Civil Division

JERRY BENFIELD,
- Plaintiff,

v.

KENNETH G. BUTTS,
- Defendant.

Case No. CAL11-02094

Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine to Exclude All Evidence of the Type of Motorcycle Plaintiff was Riding

Plaintiff, Jerry Benfield, by and through his attorneys, Ronald V. Miller, Jr., Laura G. Zois and Miller & Zois, LLC hereby submits Plaintiff’s Motion In Limine to Exclude all Evidence of the Type of Motorcycle Plaintiff Was Riding. As will be argued herein, such evidence should be excluded because it is irrelevant. Even if this Court were to determine such evidence had some limited degree of relevance, the evidence should be excluded because its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of undue prejudice.

Introduction

This action arises out of a motor vehicle collision that took place on September 6, 2009, at about 6:45 a.m. Plaintiff was traveling from his home in Prince George’s County, Maryland to his place of employment in Washington, D.C. Plaintiff was employed by the United States Department of the Treasury as an Information Technology Specialist. On the date of the occurrence, Plaintiff was operating a 2008 Kawasaki ZX6, a 600cc motorcycle. Although Plaintiff owned a “regular” automobile, he commuted to work a few days a week on his motorcycle to save on gasoline costs.

Plaintiff was traveling westbound on Wheeler Road when Defendant, Kenneth G. Butts, attempted to make a left turn from Birch Tree Lane onto eastbound Wheeler Road. This deprived Plaintiff of his right of way and caused a collision between the Plaintiff’s motorcycle and Defendant’s automobile. This collision caused Plaintiff to suffer severe injuries and permanent disability, including the traumatic amputation of his left leg below the knee.

Procedural Posture

This matter originally came before this Court for trial on July 11, 2011. The case was tried before a jury. The jury was presented with a three question verdict sheet. Exhibit 1. The jury found in favor of the Defendant, holding that Defendant was not negligent or that his negligence was not a proximate cause of Plaintiff’s injuries.

Plaintiff filed a Motion for New Trial, which was granted by this Court on May 14, 2011. This matter is now before the Court for retrial.

The Disputed Evidence

In the first trial of this matter, Defendant submitted various evidence concerning the type of motorcycle the Plaintiff was operating, which included photographs of the vehicle. Additionally, references were made to the specific type of motorcycle Plaintiff was driving throughout the trial by defense counsel and various witnesses, referring to the motorcycle using the term “crotch rocket.” It is believed that Defendant intends to use similar evidence and/or comments at this trial. Plaintiff now seeks to exclude any evidence or mention of the specific type of motorcycle Plaintiff was driving, and specifically seeks to preclude any use of the phrase “crotch rocket” or similar pejorative term, or from offering into evidence pictures of the motorcycle.

Legal Standard

“The admission of evidence is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be reversed unless there is a clear abuse of discretion.” Thomas v. State, 397 Md. 557, 919 A.2d 49, 62 (2011).

Argument

The disputed evidence should be excluded for two reasons. First, it is irrelevant. Such evidence does not make any fact of consequence in the action more or less likely. It is therefore irrelevant under the evidentiary rules and has no place in this trial. Second, even if the evidence were relevant, its probative value would be substantially outweighed by the danger of undue prejudice. Since any probative value would be extremely slight, and the proffered evidence is extremely inflammatory and prejudicial, it should be excluded from admission at this trial.

  1. The disputed evidence is irrelevant.
  2. Maryland Rule 5-402 clearly states that “[e]vidence that is not relevant is not admissible.” The rules provide a framework for determining whether any particular piece of evidence is “relevant”. Md. Rule 5-401 defines “relevant evidence” as: “[E]vidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

    Evidence is relevant when, in conjunction with all other relevant evidence, the evidence tends to make the proposition asserted more or less probable. Snyder v. State, 361 Md. 580, 591, 762 A.2d 125, 131 (2000). For the purposes of this Motion, the question may be framed as: “Does the kind of motorcycle the Plaintiff was riding have any tendency to make any fact of consequence to the determination of the action more or less likely?” The answer is, no.

    In order for the Court to make this determination, it must first ascertain what facts are of consequence to the determination of the action. “What issues are material to a particular case is determined by the substantive law and the pleadings.” McLain, Maryland Rules of Evidence § 401:1 (West, 2001). “The applicable substantive law establishes the parameters of the elements of a particular claim or defense.” Id. The issues involved in this case may be established by reference to the verdict sheet. Exhibit 1. That verdict sheet contained three questions. The third question pertained to damages only, and was not reached by the jury. The first two questions are as follows:

    1. Do you find that Defendant, Kenneth Butts, was negligent in the operation of his vehicle on September 6, 2009, and that his negligence was the proximate cause of the injuries to the Plaintiff, Jerry Benfield?
    2. Do you find that the Plaintiff, Jerry Benfield, was contributorily negligent in the operation of his motorcycle on September 6, 2009, and that his negligence was a proximate cause of his own injuries?

    These questions may be restated simply as, “Was Defendant negligent?” and “Was Plaintiff contributorily negligent?” These questions establish that the two issues of most consequence to the determination of the action are the respective negligence of Defendant and Plaintiff. Having established the material issues, it must be determined what facts are of consequence to answering these questions, and whether the disputed evidence has any bearing on those facts.

    The elements of negligence and contributory negligence are well established. Negligence requires: “(1) a legal duty on the part of the defendant to use due care toward the plaintiff; (2) a failure by the defendant to perform the duty he owes to the plaintiff; (3) some damage to the plaintiff; and (4) which damage was occasioned by the defendant’s failure to perform the required duty.” Kuykendall v. Top Notch Laminates, Inc., 70 Md.App. 244, 248, 520 A.2d 1115 (1986). “Contributory negligence, of course, means negligence which contributes to cause a particular accident…” Bratton v. Smith, 256 Md. 695, 705, 261 A.2d 777, 782 (1970).

    Thus, the Court’s task is to determine whether the type of motorcycle Plaintiff was riding has any bearing on the questions presented, in light of the applicable substantive law. It seems easy enough to eliminate many of the above elements as not being influenced by the type of motorcycle Plaintiff was riding. This evidence plainly has nothing to do with whether a duty of due care was owed to Plaintiff, whether the Plaintiff sustained damages, whether Plaintiff’s damages were causally related to any negligence of Defendant, or whether Defendant failed to exercise due care. Each of these elements is determined solely by the actions of Defendant and the evidence of what the Defendant’s actions were. Restated, the kind of motorcycle Plaintiff was riding cannot make any fact bearing upon these elements more or less likely. Therefore, the kind of motorcycle operated by Plaintiff, and whether it can fairly be described with the term “crotch rocket” is irrelevant, as a matter of law, as to any element involved in determining whether Defendant was negligent and is, therefore, inadmissible.

    The only conceivable bearing such evidence could have on any issue of consequence in the case is whether Plaintiff was contributorily negligent. For such evidence to have relevance, it must make whether the Plaintiff exercised due care for his own safety either more or less likely. The only way this is even possible is if the Court accepts the conclusion that the kind of motorcycle operated by Plaintiff permits an inference that he was more or less likely to be exercising due care. The Court is obliged to use “logic and experience” to make this determination. McLain, Maryland Rules of Evidence § 401:1(b) (West, 2001). Logic dictates that the disputed evidence is irrelevant for this purpose. For this Court to conclude otherwise would require the illogical conclusion that because a particular type of vehicle is capable of being operated at high speed, or is capable of great maneuverability, that it is more or less likely that the Plaintiff was engaging in such actions.

    Moreover, there is no evidence of excessive speed in this case. Whether Plaintiff was operating a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a “chopper”, a Honda Goldwing, a motocross cycle, a moped or a 2002 Kawasaki ZX6 has nothing at all to do with whether that vehicle was operated with due care. Accordingly, such evidence is irrelevant to any material issue in this case and, therefore, inadmissible under Md. Rule 5-402.

  3. Even if the disputed evidence were relevant, it should be excluded because its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
  4. Trial courts have great discretion in deciding what evidence may be submitted to the finder of fact. McLain, Maryland Rules of Evidence § 2.403.1 (West 1994). This extends to the exclusion of relevant evidence where “its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury…” Md. Rule 5-403.

    The disputed evidence has very little probative value. It has no potential to make any fact of consequence in this case more or less likely. It is Plaintiff’s contention that the disputed evidence is not relevant at all. Even if this Court were to hold that the disputed evidence were relevant, any probative value it might have would be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

    Whatever insight the type of motorcycle Mr. Benfield was operating may provide to the jury pales in comparison to the prejudice that will result from allowing the jury to be influenced by references to him operating a fast, maneuverable motorcycle, or allowing the defense to refer to it using the term “crotch rocket.” This type of evidence and/or verbiage can have but one purpose - to invite the jury to speculate, without regard to the evidence, that the Plaintiff must have been operating his vehicle negligently simply because of the kind of vehicle he was operating.

    The prior verdict in this case illustrates the overwhelming likelihood of unfair prejudice. For this Court to set aside the jury’s verdict, that verdict must have been substantially against the weight of the evidence. The jury must have been influenced by something. This Court should rule that the disputed evidence is inadmissible in order to ensure that a subsequent verdict is not tainted by considerations outside the evidence in the case.

    Where, as here, the probative value of the disputed evidence is minimal and the likelihood of unfair prejudice or misleading the jury is substantial, this Court should rule that the disputed evidence is inadmissible at trial.

Conclusion

Plaintiff’s Motion should be granted. The disputed evidence is irrelevant under Md. Rule 5-402 because it does not make any fact of consequence to the determination of this case more or less likely. Moreover, even if the disputed evidence had some limited degree of relevance, any probative value it had would be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. For these reasons, Plaintiff’s Motion should be granted and the Court should enter an Order precluding any reference to the type of motorcycle Plaintiff was riding, any submission of pictures of the motorcycle and any use of the term “crotch rocket” at the trial of this matter.

Respectfully submitted,
MILLER & ZOIS, LLC

Ronald V. Miller, Jr.
Laura G. Zois
1 South St, #2450
Baltimore, MD 21202
(410) 779-4600
(410) 760-8922 (facsimile)
Attorneys for Plaintiff

Certificate of Service

I, Ronald V. Miller, Jr., hereby certify that a copy of Plaintiff’s foregoing Motion In Limine was sent this 30th day of June, 2008, via U.S. first class mail, postage prepaid, to:

Francis J. Ford, Esquire
Law Offices of Francis J. Ford
7700 Old Georgetown Road, Suite 520
Bethesda, Maryland 20814
Fax No.: (301) 986-1808
Attorney for Defendant
Ronald V. Miller, Jr.

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, MARYLAND
Civil Division

JERRY BENFIELD,
Plaintiff,
v.
KENNETH G. BUTTS,
Defendant.

ORDER

Upon consideration of Plaintiff’s Motion In Limine to Exclude All Evidence of the Type of Motorcycle Plaintiff Was Riding, and all responses thereto, it is this ____ day of __________________, 2011, by the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County

ORDERED, that Plaintiff’s Motion is granted, and it is further
ORDERED, that the Defendant is precluded from presenting any evidence of the type of motorcycle the Plaintiff was riding; and it is further

ORDERED, that no party may use the phrase “crotch rocket” during the trial of this case; and it is further

ORDERED, that no pictures of the motorcycle shall be presented as evidence at the trial of this case.

JUDGE
Circuit Court for Prince George’s County
cc to: Ronald V. Miller, Jr., Esquire
Attorney for Plaintiff
Francis J. Ford, Esquire
Attorney for Defendant

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