You took on your civil case without a lawyer. Despite being nervous and angry, you persevered. You made it through the complaint, answer, and discovery stages against a lawyer. You survived multiple hearings in front of a hard-nosed judge. You’re proud of yourself.
Then in pretrial filings, the lawyer presses his finger on an incident in your background that weakens your case. Uh oh. You thought that was a small thing. You’d all but disregarded it in pretrial planning. The lawyer had blown it all out of proportion. What do you do? Consider a motion in limine, fast. It’s one way to suppress or explain your oops.
A motion in limine (pronounced “lemonay”), moves, or asks, a court to exclude or limit evidence from being presented to a jury because it is irrelevant, inadmissible, prejudicial, or is objectionable for some other reason. The scenario below explains this motion in context.
Thomas and Cindy inherited their grandmother’s house, an older building that needs repairs. Still, they move in and are excited to host friends and family for a housewarming party. On the day of the party, one of the guests, Zane Wilkins, leans against an outside railing. It gives way, and he falls and breaks his arm. Zane sues Thomas and Cindy for the cost of his medical treatment, citing their negligence to repair the railing before the party.
A year later, after discovery is over, the case moves into pre-trial. Thomas and Cindy are nervous because the attorney for Zane is making a big deal about two previous incidents at dwellings they owned. According to the evidence, a carpenter was hurt when he fell through the rotted floor at a house Cindy owned and an incident in which Thomas jointly owned a rental home where a child was harmed by a protruding nail.
Concerned about these accusations, and knowing them to be true, Thomas and Cindy filed a Motion in Limine to bar evidence of them. They contended that the incidents were irrelevant and prejudicial. They also had issues with the way the attorney described the incidents in court papers.
What the Judge Might Consider When Deciding a Motion in Limine
In most jurisdictions, the judge has discretion to admit or exclude evidence. In deciding the motion, the judge will determine if (1) the evidence has potentially inflammatory characteristics that outweigh its materiality; (2) the evidence is prejudicial, and the prejudice outweighs the probative value; and (3) the evidence is not supported by facts or law.
In their motion, Thomas and Cindy provided all the facts of the previous cases so that the judge could see them in context. They asserted that the incidents were not that similar and that the pattern the opposing counsel was attempting to prove did not exist. They went on to explain why they felt the evidence about prior incidents was irrelevant and prejudicial.
For instance, the home “owned” by Cindy was not hers at the time of the accident. Her parents owned it, and she was a teenager. When she took possession of it, she immediately had the house inspected for safety hazards, and had any detected hazards repaired.
How Might the Judge Rule
When arguing for the motion in limine, a common assertion is “The irrelevance and prejudicial nature of the evidence outweighs its probative value, so the movant respectfully requests this Court to enter an order barring the nonmovant from mentioning, referring to, or interrogating concerning the stated evidence at any time during these proceedings in any manner, either directly or indirectly.”
Thomas and Cindy used the language above, slipping in party names for “movant” and “nonmovant”. The judge did not buy the argument that the evidence was prejudicial. However, persuaded by Thomas and Cindy’s argument on the irrelevance of the prior incidents, he barred Zane’s attorneys from presenting evidence or discussion of the two incidents. Thomas and Cindy were lucky. The judge just as easily could have gone the other way.
Pretrial is a time of negotiating and tidying things up before a trial begins. In preparation, review all the evidence collected in the case. Determine if it is in your best interest to allow evidence you believe to be irrelevant, prejudicial or in other ways objectionable to go to the jury. If it’s not, use the motion in limine to your advantage.
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