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McQueeney v. Wilmington Tr. Co. - 779 F.2d 916 (3d Cir. 1985)

Rule:

The standard of review for harmless error in civil cases is the same as in criminal. Errors in a criminal case are not harmless unless it is highly probable that they did not affect a party's substantial rights.

Facts:

Appellee McQueeney was a second officer on the T T WILLIAMSBURG, a supertanker owned by appellant Wilmington Trust Company and operated by Anndep Steamship Corporation. McQueeney claims that on March 20, 1981, while the WILLIAMSBURG was docked at Hounds Point Scotland, he was knocked to the deck while manning a water hose. McQueeney asserts that his fall was caused by both overpressure of the hose and by oil that had been spilled on the deck, making firm footing impossible, and that as a result of his accident, he suffered a herniated cervical disc. He brought this suit in June, 1982 in the district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Because the case arose under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688 et seq. (1982), jurisdiction was predicated upon 28 U.S.C. § 1333 (1982). The district court conducted a jury trial at the end of which the jury awarded plaintiff a verdict of $305,788.00 against the two defendants. Judgment was entered in the same amount, and the defendants' motions for a new trial and for relief from the judgment were denied. Defendants appealed.

Issue:

Did the trial court err in excluding evidence that McQueeney had suborned a witness to commit perjury, and in excluding McQueeney’s sea service record?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The court reversed the judgment and remanded the case. It held that the trial court's refusal to admit evidence that McQueeney suborned a witness to commit perjury was an abuse of discretion. The court reasoned that under Fed. R. Evid. 401, the excluded evidence was relevant, and that the danger of improper influence was not sufficient to substantially outweigh its probative value, as required by Fed. R. Evid. 403. It found that the error was not harmless, because it could not say that it was highly probable that the trial court's refusal to enter evidence of McQueeney's subornation of perjury did not affect the substantial rights of the supertanker owner and operator. The court concluded that the trial court erred in excluding McQueeney’s sea service records, because circumstantial evidence established their authenticity, and that the error was not harmless.

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