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Okanovic v. Hayes

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 4, 2019



          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

         Plaintiff Amir Okanovic (“Okanovic”) and his wife filed the instant lawsuit following a tractor-trailer accident in the parking lot of a truck stop. Trial is set to begin in approximately one week. Defendants Robert Hayes (“Hayes”) and USA Truck, Inc. (“USA Truck”) (collectively, “defendants”) have filed four motions in limine, (Docs. 19-22), seeking to exclude certain evidence at trial. We will grant in part and deny in part defendants' motions.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History[1]

         The relevant facts in this case are largely undisputed. The tractor-trailer accident occurred at a truck stop in central Pennsylvania on May 25, 2016. (Doc. 1 ¶ 1). At that time, Okanovic, who resides in New York, was a self-employed tractor-trailer operator. (Id. ¶ 8). Around 9:00 p.m., Okanovic was asleep in the “sleeper berth” of his parked tractor trailer. (Id. ¶¶ 9-10). Hayes, who was working as a driver for USA Truck, hit the rear portion of Okanovic's parked vehicle. (Id. ¶ 12). Okanovic alleges that the collision caused him to fall from the top bunk of his sleeper berth onto the floor of his tractor trailer, resulting in substantial, permanent injuries to his lower back. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 13, 16, 24).

         Okanovic filed suit in May 2018, alleging negligence against Hayes and USA Truck. The parties agree that the accident occurred and that Hayes was negligent for hitting Okanovic's tractor trailer. Defendants challenge causation-both cause-in-fact and proximate cause-as well as the nature and extent of Okanovic's damages. Trial is scheduled to begin on November 12, 2019. Defendants filed four motions in limine, which seek to exclude evidence that they believe is irrelevant or unfairly prejudicial or does not meet the requirements of Federal Rule of Evidence 702. The motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         II. Discussion

         Defendants' admissibility challenges implicate two general categories: (1) information regarding Okanovic's immigration history and his pursuit of “the American dream, ” and (2) the expert qualifications of Robert Nobilini, Ph.D. (“Dr. Nobilini”). We will address these issues seriatim.

         A. Okanovic's Personal Background[2]

         Okanovic's personal history is equal parts tragedy and triumph. He was born in Bosnia and fought on the front lines (for the losing side) in that country's civil war. He and his family were eventually forced out of Bosnia and became refugees, living in refugee centers in Croatia for two years until they immigrated to the United States in 1997. According to the parties, Okanovic and his family were also subjected to post-war internment, suffering through illness and “unspeakable” living conditions, before resettling in the United States. (See Doc. 19 at 2).

         Following the family's relocation to this country, Okanovic rebuilt his life “from scratch.” (Doc. 29 at 7). He learned English and worked as a machine operator making medical supplies. He attended trucking school in the morning while continuing to work full-time as a second-shift machinist, eventually earning his Commercial Driver's License (“CDL”). Okanovic worked briefly for several large trucking companies before starting his own trucking business in 2005. From that time until the accident, he was self-employed as an owner-operator.

         1. Pre-Immigration Life and Immigration Status

         Defendants seek to preclude any reference to Okanovic's pre-immigration life and hardships, as well as to his immigration status. They argue that such information is both irrelevant and overly prejudicial.

         Evidence is relevant when it tends to “make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence” and that fact is consequential to the outcome of the case. Fed.R.Evid. 401. Rule 401's definition of relevant evidence is “very broad” and “does not raise a high standard.” Moyer v. United Dominion Indus., Inc., 473 F.3d 532, 544 (3d Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). Even if evidence is relevant, it may still be inadmissible if it is unduly prejudicial in comparison to its probative value. Rule 403 provides that relevant evidence may be excluded “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Fed.R.Evid. 403 (emphasis added).

         We agree with defendants that Okanovic's pre-immigration hardships, while tragic, have little bearing on the issues remaining for trial in this motor vehicle accident case. Okanovic and his family members' difficult experiences in internment camps and refugee settlements do not make any fact regarding causation more or less probable, and their relation to damages is tenuous. We find that any probative value of ...

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