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Dortch v. Fowler - 588 F.3d 396 (6th Cir. 2009)

Rule:

The standard for relevancy is "extremely liberal" under the Federal Rules of Evidence. Evidence is relevant if it has 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.

Facts:

This case arises out of a traffic accident involving a vehicle driven by plaintiff Angela Dortch and a defendant Con-Way Transportation Services, Inc. tractor-trailer driven by defendant Loren Fowler. Dortch alleges that Fowler's tractor-trailer was in her lane when the accident occurred, and that Con-Way had continued to employ Fowler despite his poor driving record. Based on a gouge in the pavement, an officer and defendants' expert found that the SUV crossed into the tractor-trailer's lane. Based on a second gouge, Dortch's expert found that the tractor-trailer crossed into the SUV's lane. The employer undertook a search of past accident records and failed to find evidence of a past accident that might have caused the second gouge. Dortch brought suit against both Fowler and Con-Way, alleging negligent causation on the part of Fowler (attributable to Con-Way under the doctrine of respondeat superior) and negligent supervision and retention on the part of Con-Way. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Con-Way on the negligent-supervision-and-retention claim, and a jury found for Fowler (and thus Con-Way) on the underlying negligence claim regarding the cause of the accident. Plaintiff appealed.

Issue:

(a) Did the district court err when it precluded plaintiff from cross-examining defendant’s witnesses about the absence of record evidence corroborating its theory that a previous accident caused the second gouge?  (b) Did the district court err when it admitted the officer's police report into evidence pursuant to the hearsay exception in Rule 803(8)(B) of the Federal Rules of Evidence?

Answer:

(a) Yes; (b) No

Conclusion:

(a) The district court abused its discretion in preventing Dortch from pursuing this line of questioning because it was relevant to a central issue at trial. Evidence is relevant if it has "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." Just as positive evidence of a past accident that could have created the second gouge would have been admissible as tending to support Con-Way (had such evidence been found), the absence of any such evidence in the accident records makes it less likely that the second gouge predated the underlying accident in this case. Put another way, the absence of any past accident record is exactly what one would expect to find if Dortch's theory that the gouge was caused by this accident is correct. Although it may not be very strong evidence, it is certainly some evidence in Dortch's favor. (b)  The district court's decision that the police report was trustworthy was reasonable or, at the very least, arguable, and thus not an abuse of discretion. Officer Beauford had an extensive background in accident reconstruction, was on the scene shortly after the accident, was unbiased, and his report was primarily based on his team's personal observations. Given these facts, the district court did not err in admitting Officer Beauford's report as evidence and permitting Dortch to raise any issues with the report or the officer's conduct via cross-examination. 

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