An error in giving (or refusing to give) a particular jury instruction will not be considered reversible error unless, considering all the instructions, the evidence and the arguments that the jury heard, it appears that the jury was misled or did not have a sufficient understanding of the issues and its duty to determine them. The instructions must be evaluated as a whole, inquiring whether the correct message was conveyed to the jury reasonably well. Reversal is inappropriate unless the jury's understanding of the issues was seriously affected to the prejudice of the complaining party.
Simmons, a manufacturer of residential and commercial bedding, owned a warehouse in Munster, Indiana. Simmons entered into a contract with defendant Pinkerton's, a national company providing investigative and security services, under which Pinkerton's agreed to provide uniformed guard protection for the warehouse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Pinkerton's hired William Hayne for the position of security guard. Hayne apparently lied in several instances on his employment application. Pinkerton's also neglected to give Hayne certain types of training, including fire protection training, which its manuals indicated were mandatory for security guards. On September 25th, 1978, Hayne reported for work at the Simmons warehouse. During his shift, a fire ensued inside the warehouse. According to Hayne’s testimony, He attempted to put the fire out with several cannister fire extinguishers but was unsuccessful. A reel fire hose was available in the area, but Hayne was not trained to use the hose and was unable to operate it properly. The Munster Fire Department arrived and contained the fire, but not before damage to the building and extensive damage to the bedding occurred. In light of other suspicious circumstances, the Indiana Fire Marshal's Office investigated the matter. The office concluded that the fire was of incendiary origin and was most likely set by Hayne as an "attention getter." Simmons then brought this diversity action against Pinkerton's, and against the National Surety Corporation as surety for Pinkerton's. After trial the jury found in favor of Simmons and awarded it the amount of damages claimed. Pursuant to Simmons' post-trial motion, the trial court awarded prejudgment interest on the damages. Pinkerton's and National Surety raised several claims of error relating to the trial court's instructions to the jury, admission of evidence and award of prejudgment interest. We consider each of these claims separately.
Did the trial court err in instructing the jury that a violation of the Indiana Detective License Law, constitutes negligence per se, when that statute is irrelevant to the issues in this case, and does not provide a standard of care creating a private cause of action for the plaintiff?
The court held that the challenged jury instructions did not constitute reversible error because it was not shown that the instructions prejudiced the security company. The evidence relating to the security company's hiring practices and the employee's background was highly relevant, and the potential prejudicial impact of the evidence was relatively slight, such that the admission of the evidence was not reversible error in the circumstances presented in this case. Also, the court held that the employee's testimony was properly admitted pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 608(b).