Friday, May 5, 2006

When Is a Motion in Limine Not?

After a tobacco company filed 11 motions in limine on the eve of trial of a wrongful death case, Judge James L. Robart (W.D. Wash.) was irritated -- and not by second-hand smoke. He thought that some of the motions were actually dispositive motions in disguise. What's the problem? It changes the calendar -- so that the motions were filed with much less notice to the other party and little time for the judge to consider them. Kimball ex rel. Kimball v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., 2006 WL 1148506, No. C03-664 (W.D. Wash. April 26, 2006), Westlaw. Here is the pleading lesson Judge Robart gave the parties:

Mr. Kimball's two remaining claims have awaited trial for more than a year. Now, in the guise of “motions in limine,” RJR seeks to substantially pare those claims. The court has never before needed to remind a party that a motion in limine is substantially different than a dispositive motion. RJR's conduct, however, demands a different approach.

A motion in limine is “[a] pretrial request that certain inadmissible evidence not be referred to or offered at trial.” Black's Law Dictionary, 1038 (8th Ed.2004). Some of RJR's motions meet this definition. At least half of them clearly do not. In this court, parties must generally file motions in limine a few weeks before trial, and they become ripe no later than two weeks after their filing. Dispositive motions, by contrast, are due at least 90 days before trial, and become ripe at least four weeks after their filing. The court's scheduling orders give it ample time to consider dispositive motions. The court's scheduling orders give it very little time to consider motions in limine.

Competent counsel represent RJR in this matter. The court assumes that counsel is aware of the differences between dispositive motions and motions in limine. The court is thus surprised and disappointed to find numerous dispositive motions pending only days before trial. RJR apparently believes that it can transform a motion for dispositive relief into a motion in limine simply by stating that once the court throws out the claim or theory that is the focus of the motion, the court should exclude evidence that is relevant to that claim or theory. Under this logic, RJR is free to ignore the deadline for dispositive motions and bring “motions in limine” at its leisure. The absurdity of RJR's position compounds when the court considers that RJR brought a motion in limine regarding its assumption of the risk defense in early November 2005 (Dkt.# 77). In that motion, RJR explained that it brought the motion early because “fundamental fairness” required that it know the scope of its defenses well in advance of trial. Apparently, the same “fundamental fairness” does not extend to efforts to dramatically pare Mr. Kimball's claims days before trial.

With a long-delayed trial set to begin in less than a week, the court declines to provide an analysis of each of RJR's dispositive requests. Instead, the court provides the following summary of the claims and defenses the jury will hear at trial. The summary includes only those defenses that are relevant to the disposition of the motions in limine. The court will conclude this order with summary dispositions of the parties' motions in limine along with RJR's thinly-veiled dispositive motions.
The trial appears to be underway. I wasn't able to find any press coverage of it, but the court calendar shows it scheduled for Monday through Thursday next week.

May 15 update: Here is a "case backgrounder" from R.J. Reynolds.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On May 15th, R.J. Reynolds won a unanimous defense verdict on all four counts (pre-1981 negligent failure to warn, post-1981 failure to warn under the WPLA, pre-1981 negligent design,post-1981 design defect under the WPLA). The jury deliberated less than two hours.