Law School Case Brief
Ballou v. Henri Studios, Inc. - 656 F.2d 1147 (5th Cir. 1981)
Under Fed. R. Evid. 403, a district court may exclude evidence, even if relevant, if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. A trial court's ruling on admissibility under Fed. R. Evid. 403's balancing test will not be overturned on appeal absent a clear abuse of discretion.
An automobile traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour struck the rear of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer which was parked entirely on the right hand shoulder of a curved, divided highway. The driver of the car, Jesse Ballou, was killed instantly. Ballou's sole passenger, 12-year-old Leonard Herman Clay, was rendered unconscious upon impact and died two days later. The plaintiffs Yolanda Ballou and Terrence Ballou, who were the children of Jesse Ballou, and Lula Mae LeBlanc, who was the mother of Leonard Herman Clay filed this diversity suit in Texas federal district court against appellant Henri Studios, Inc., alleging that the deaths of Jesse Ballou and Leonard Herman Clay were proximately caused by the negligence of Henri Studios' employee, truck driver John Woelfel. Henri Studios, inter alia, denied that Woelfel's conduct was negligent and asserted that the collision was caused by the negligence of the deceased driver of the car, Jesse Ballou. The trial court excluded blood alcohol tests indicating that driver Ballou was intoxicated at time of accident, holding that the probative value outweighed the danger of unfair prejudice. The jury returned a verdict holding defendants 55 percent negligent after resubmission of the case. No damages were awarded for Clay’s conscious pain and suffering.
Did the trial court err in excluding blood alcohol tests indicating that the driver was intoxicated at time of accident?
The United States Court of Appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for a new trial. The trial court should have determined the probative value of the test results if true, and then weighed that probative value against the danger of unfair prejudice, leaving to the jury the difficult choice of whether to credit that evidence. The trial court also erred in declaring that the test results were not credible (and therefore assigning them little or no probative value) due to concerns regarding possible breaks in the "chain of custody" or contamination of Ballou's body or the blood samples. The Court held that exclusion was improper where the potential for unfair prejudice did not substantially outweighed the test's probative value and the tests reflected upon contributory negligence issue. While there was a slight possibility that evidence of Ballou's intoxication might adversely affect the jury's deliberation on issues other than Ballou's contributory negligence, this slight potential for unfair prejudice was virtually insignificant when compared with the high relevance and probative value of the evidence. The Court concluded that the trial court committed reversible error in excluding the results of the blood test under FRE 403 and that the judgment in favor of Yolanda and Terrence Ballou must be reversed and the cause remanded for a new trial. The Court affirmed the verdict denying damages for conscious pain and suffering where the evidence supported the verdict.
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