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Pinnix, v. SSC Silver Stream Operating Company LLC

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division

September 24, 2017

GWENDOLYN JACKSON PINNIX, Executor of The Estate of David W. Jackson, Sr.; WARREN IVAN JACKSON, Executor of The Estate of David W. Jackson, Sr., Plaintiffs,
v.
SSC SILVER STREAM OPERATING COMPANY LLC, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case, set for trial beginning September 25, 2017, came before the court for final pretrial conference on Monday, September 18, 2017. The court heard argument on plaintiffs' motion in limine (DE 93), [1] followed by argument on defendant's motion in limine. (DE 92). The court decided numerous evidentiary issues raised in these motions in rulings from the bench. Five issues remained for decision: 1) plaintiffs' motion to exclude evidence of defendant's compliance with the North Carolina State Building Code; 2) defendant's motion to exclude testimony of plaintiffs' expert witness, Kate Cogan, R.N. (“Cogan”); 3) defendant's motion to exclude evidence of its safety audit procedures; 4) defendant's motion to exclude evidence regarding application of black and yellow reflective tape to the handicap ramp; and 5) defendant's motion to exclude evidence that it painted its handicap ramp yellow following decedent's accident on July 21, 2013.

         For the reasons that follow, plaintiffs' motion in limine to exclude evidence regarding defendant's compliance with the North Carolina State Building Code is denied; defendant's motion in limine to exclude evidence from Cogan is denied; and defendant's motion to in limine to exclude evidence concerning its safety audit procedures also is denied. The court holds in abeyance decision on the remaining issues.

         COURT'S DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiffs' Motion in Limine (DE 93)

         Plaintiffs' motion concerns the admissibility of evidence regarding defendant's compliance with the North Carolina State Building Code (“Building Code”). Plaintiffs assert that evidence that defendant complied with the Building Code should be excluded because it is irrelevant to the case under Federal Rule of Evidence Rule 401, and because it would confuse and prejudice the jury under Rule 403.

         Only relevant evidence is admissible. Fed.R.Evid. 401. Evidence is relevant if “it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence” and “the fact is of consequence in determining the action.” Fed.R.Evid. 401. The “basic standard of relevance . . . is a liberal one.” Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 587 (1993). Irrelevant evidence is not admissible. Fed.R.Evid. 402. Under Rule 403, the court must ensure that the probative value of any proffered evidence is not “substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.” Fed.R.Evid. 403. “Because the evidence sought to be excluded under Rule 403 is concededly probative, the balance under Rule 403 should be struck in favor of admissibility, and evidence should be excluded only sparingly.” United States v. Aramony, 88 F.3d 1369, 1378 (4th Cir. 1996).

         In the present case, defendant intends to offer expert testimony from David Sims (“Sims”) that its “[handicap] ramp complies with the accessibility Code that was in force at the time of construction (2003-2004) . . . and with the current accessibility Code.” (DE 94-2, p. 1). In his expert report, Sims indicated that the ramp complies with the “2004 North Carolina State Building Code Volume 1-C 1999 Edition updated in 2002.” (Id.).

         Defendant asserts that this evidence is a fundamental defense to plaintiffs' claims and is relevant to establish that the handicap ramp and surrounding curb were not a hazard to decedent. Defendant also contends that the evidence is relevant to testimony provided by plaintiffs' expert, nurse Cogan. Furthermore, where the North Carolina Administrative Code (“Administrative Code”) governing skilled nursing facilities requires compliance with the Building Code, defendant suggests that such compliance is relevant to additional issues raised in the present case.

         Evidence that defendant's handicap ramp complied with the Building Code is relevant under Rule 401 as it makes it more probable that defendant ensured that decedent's “environment remain[ed] as free of accident hazards as possible.” 10A NCAC 13D § .2208(e). See e.g., Thomas v. Dixson, 88 N.C.App. 337, 343 (1988) (citing Pasour v. Pierce, 76 N.C.App. 364, 368-69 (1985)) (“Whether or not a building meets [the North Carolina State Building Code], though not determinative to the issue of negligence, has some probative value as to whether or not defendant failed to keep his store in a reasonably safe condition.”).

         Notwithstanding this relevancy, the evidence is prejudicial. To be sure, a jury may place undue weight on the fact that defendant's building structures complied with state code. However, the risk of any confusion or undue prejudice may be mitigated through a limiting instruction. Deans v. CSX Transp., Inc., 216 F.3d 398, 401 (4th Cir. 2000) (“The district court alleviated any prejudice or confusion that might have occurred from the introduction of this testimony with a limiting instruction.”); Aramony, 88 F.3d at 1378 (“[T]he unfair prejudicial value of evidence can be generally obviated by a cautionary limiting instruction.”) (internal quotation omitted). Plaintiffs may offer a proposed limiting instruction. For reasons given, plaintiffs' motion in limine on this issue is denied.

         B. Defendant's Motion in Limine (DE 92)

         1. Testimony from Plaintiffs' Expert Kate Cogan, R.N.

         It is well-established that district courts have broad discretion in deciding motions in limine. “Questions of trial management are quintessentially the province of the district courts.” United States v. Smith,452 F.3d 323, 332 (4th Cir. 2006); see also Arnold v. E. Air Lines, Inc.,681 F.2d 186, 194 (4th Cir. 1982) (“[M]any details of trial management [are] necessarily committed to broad trial court discretion.”). Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16, a district court must enter a scheduling ...


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