Law School Case Brief
Jordan v. Binns - 712 F.3d 1123 (7th Cir. 2013)
As a general rule, errors in admitting evidence that is merely cumulative of properly admitted evidence are harmless.
As a result of a collision between a motorcycle and a semi-tractor trailer, Betty Jordan lost both of her legs. It was alleged that Jordan admitted fault at the scene to the trucker and to her husband; such admission was included in the Crash Report made by the investigating trooper. Subsequently, Jordan and her husband sued the tractor’s driver and his employer for negligence and loss of consortium under Indiana law. During trial, the district court allowed the investigating trooper to testify about what the husband and the driver said regarding Betty’s admission of fault. A jury trial resulted in a defense verdict. The Jordans seek a new trial on grounds that several of the district court's evidentiary rulings ran afoul of the rule against hearsay, Fed. R. Evid. 802.
- Did the trial court improperly admit hearsay evidence during trial?
- Assuming arguendo that there were mistakes in admitting evidence, was it enough to grant a new trial to the plaintiffs?
1) Yes, with respect to the admission as evidence of the investigating trooper’s testimony regarding the driver’s statement on the wife’s admission of fault at the scene.
The Court held that in allowing the trooper to testify about what the driver said regarding the wife’s admission of fault at the scene, the trial court abused its discretion because the driver’s statement was inadmissible hearsay. However, notwithstanding such error, the Court concluded that the Jordans were not entitled to a new trial. The Court noted that where the parties have established that the district court made a few evidentiary errors, they were not entitled to a do-over if those errors were harmless. Rather, to obtain a new trial they must demonstrate that there was a significant chance that at least one of the errors affected their substantial rights, i.e., that an error likely had a substantial effect on the jury's verdict and the result was inconsistent with substantial justice. In the present case, the Court found that not only was the improperly admitted evidence cumulative, but the other evidence presented at trial did not have a substantial effect on the jury's verdict. As such, the Court affirmed the district court’s judgment.
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