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"R.D" v. Shohola, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 19, 2019

“R.D., ” Plaintiff,
v.
SHOHOLA, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          MARTIN C. CARLSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. Factual Background

         The plaintiff, “R.D., ” commenced this action on June 3, 2016, alleging that the defendant, Shohola, Inc., is liable to him for the injuries he incurred when he was sexually assaulted on one of the defendant's overnight camping trips. The parties are currently preparing for trial on the remaining negligence claims in this lawsuit. As trial approaches, the parties have filed some 28 motions in limine, including one motion filed by the plaintiff, (Doc. 301), and 27 motions submitted by the defendant. (Docs. 302-27).

         We now turn to consideration of one of these motions. Defense motion in limine Number 3 asks the court to enter a pre-trial order seeking two forms of relief: (1) an order barring all reference to insurance coverage information and (2) exclusion of any evidence relating to Shohola's insurance agent, Morris Gold, in the presence of the jury. (Doc. 304). For his part, the plaintiff does not object to an order precluding references to Shohola's insurance coverage, but R.D. does object to a complete exclusion of any reference to Mr. Gold at this trial, alleging that Gold provided Shohola staff with training regarding sexual abuse, a matter which would be highly relevant to the issues in his case. In particular, R.D. observes that Shohola's co-director Duncan Barger has stated that Morris Gold “speaks at our camp orientation every year”. (Doc. 366 at 6). According to Barger, Gold: “provides us advice and he speaks at our counselor orientation.” (Id.) Barger has also stated that Gold spoke to camp personnel about issues directly relevant to this litigation. Specifically, Gold's training sessions at Camp Shohola included the following: “he talked about the fact that sexual abuse is not only between adults and children, but that it can also be between children.” (Id.) Barger further confirmed that sexual abuse was discussed at every annual training for the camp's staff, including in the year 2007, “without a doubt”. (Id.) Thus, Barger's unequivocal testimony indicates that Gold's staff training related directly to issues that are highly relevant in this case: camp staff awareness of the potential for sexual abuse by and between juvenile campers.

         With Barger's testimony having framed the relevance of this evidence for us, this motion has been briefed and argued by the parties and is, therefore, ripe for resolution. (Doc. 366). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is GRANTED in part, and DENIED in part.

         I. Discussion

         A. Motions in Limine-Guiding Principles

          The Court is vested with broad inherent authority to manage its cases, which carries with it the discretion and authority to rule on motions in limine prior to trial. See Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n.4 (1984); In re Japanese Elec. Prods. Antitrust Litig., 723 F.2d 238, 260 (3d Cir. 1983), rev'd on other grounds sub nom., Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986) (the court exercises its discretion to rule in limine on evidentiary issues “in appropriate cases”). Courts may exercise this discretion in order to ensure that juries are not exposed to unfairly prejudicial, confusing or irrelevant evidence. United States v. Romano, 849 F.2d 812, 815 (3d Cir. 1988). Courts may also do so in order to “narrow the evidentiary issues for trial and to eliminate unnecessary trial interruptions.” Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ., 913 F.2d 1064, 1069 (3d Cir. 1990) (citation omitted). However, courts should be careful before doing so.

         In considering motions in limine which call upon the Court to engage in preliminary evidentiary rulings under Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, we begin by recognizing that these “evidentiary rulings [on motions in limine] are subject to the trial judge's discretion and are therefore reviewed only for abuse of discretion . . . . Additionally, application of the balancing test under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 will not be disturbed unless it is ‘arbitrary and irrational.' ” Abrams v.

         Lightolier Inc., 50 F.3d 1204, 1213 (3d Cir. 1995) (citations omitted); see Bernardsville Bd. of Educ. v. J.H., 42 F.3d 149, 161 (3d Cir. 1994) (reviewing in limine rulings for abuse of discretion). Yet, while these decisions regarding the exclusion of evidence rest in the sound discretion of the district court and will not be disturbed absent an abuse of that discretion, the exercise of that discretion is guided by certain basic principles.

         One of the key guiding principles is reflected in the philosophy which shapes the rules of evidence. The Federal Rules of Evidence can aptly be characterized as evidentiary rules of inclusion, which are designed to broadly permit fact-finders to consider pertinent factual information while searching for the truth. The inclusionary quality of the rules, and their permissive attitude towards the admission of evidence, is embodied in three cardinal concepts. The first of these concepts is Rule 401's definition of relevant evidence. Rule 401 defines what is relevant in an expansive fashion, stating:

“Relevant evidence” means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

Fed. R. Evid. 401.

         Adopting this broad view of relevance, it has been held that: “Under [Rule] 401, evidence is relevant if it has ‘any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.' [Therefore] ‘[i]t follows that evidence is irrelevant only when it has no tendency to prove the fact. Thus the rule, while giving judges great freedom to admit evidence, diminishes substantially their authority to exclude evidence as irrelevant.' ...


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