Other Plaintiffs, They’re Just Like Us

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When a child seeks permission for a summertime ice cream, she often points to other similarly-situated children enjoying the sweet treat to strengthen her argument that her request should be granted.  This childhood instinct is spot on:  evidence appears stronger when multiple parties have engaged in the same behavior or encountered the same harm.  Indeed, our legal system supports the efficient joining of claims to marshal shared evidence and address common questions.  However, the right to introduce other similar evidence is not limitless in all circumstances.  A party that seeks to offer other similar incident evidence must show that the other accident or harm was “substantially” similar to that suffered under the present facts.  In Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. 15-2507, 2017 WL 2485204, at *4 (8th Cir. June 9, 2017), the Eighth Circuit affirmed the admission of evidence of “substantial” similarity during a jury trial.  Defendants facing claims that arise out of accidents should understand the fundamentals of the appellate court’s analysis on this issue.

In 2006, defendant Mr. Lee was driving his 1996 Toyota Camry in St. Paul, Minnesota on the interstate.  As he progressed up the exit ramp, he alleges pressing an unresponsive brake pedal.  See Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., 2015 WL 3742898, at *1 (D. Minn. June 15, 2015).  Ultimately, the car crashed into the Adams’ family car killing several occupants of the vehicle and severely injuring others.  Mr. Lee was charged and convicted of seven counts of vehicular homicide and injury and one count of careless driving.  He was sentenced to eight years in prison. Following a recall of Toyota cars with “unintended acceleration,” Mr. Lee was granted post-conviction relief.  The Adams family filed suit against Toyota and the Lees intervened in the action alleging several claims including design defect, failure to warn, negligence and others.

Following a trial that began in January 2015, the jury found, in relevant part,  that Toyota’s design of the 1996 Camry resulted in a defective product that was unreasonably dangerous and was a direct cause of Plaintiffs’ injuries.  Following the judgment, Toyota moved for Judgment as a Matter of Law.  A main argument offered in support of this motion was that certain evidence was inadmissible.  Toyota argued that “other-incident” or “other similar incident” testimony should not have been presented to the jury.  The main reason such evidence was inadmissible, according to Toyota, was that the other witnesses’ experiences were not “substantially similar” to the Lee incident as required under the law.

At trial, Plaintiffs offered testimony of other 1996 Camry owners referred to as “other similar incident” testimony.  Plaintiffs argued that the experiences of these witnesses met the requirement of similarity to their facts and that any distinctions went to the weight, and not to the admissibility, of the evidence.  Judge Montgomery in the district court found that the three witnesses—selected from an initial 14 “other incident” accounts that Plaintiffs sought to offer—were properly admissible.  All of the witnesses (1) were involved in accidents that occurred in 1996 Camrys with high mileage, (2) experienced an acceleration event after years of incident free operation; and (3) testified that their use of brakes failed to normally slow the vehicle down.  Id. at *10.  Ultimately, the Court held that contrary to the defendant’s argument, “the other incidents need not be identical to that experienced by Lee; the threshold is one of substantial similarly not uniformity.”  Id.

In attempting to exclude other-similar incident evidence, defendants often argue that it is highly prejudicial and can cause jury confusion.  These policy-driven arguments did not succeed for Toyota on appeal.  Instead, the Eighth Circuit commended the district court for demonstrating a “keen awareness of the potential dangers of admitting” other similar incident evidence and for limiting the number of witnesses to three out of the original fourteen offered.  Furthermore, it held that the district court is in the “best position to determine whether this evidence would be unduly distracting to the jurors” in a case.  Because the decision of whether to admit “similar-incident” evidence is within the discretion of the district court, the standard of review on appeal is clear and prejudicial abuse of discretion—a high burden to meet.  More troubling to the defense is that the determination of whether other incident evidence is substantially similar is “case-specific, and no one factor is dispositive.” Adams, at *4 (8th Cir.).

Overall, the appellate court’s decision that the district court did not abuse its discretion strengthens legal precedent that will encourage Plaintiffs to offer similar accident evidence, especially in design defect cases.  One piece of advice that defendants can draw from the Court’s decision is that they may defeat the persuasiveness of other similar incident evidence by pointing out dissimilarities between the events in addition to offering arguments about prejudice and jury confusion.