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Richardson v. United States

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

May 7, 2015

GREG RICHARDSON, DEBORAH RICHARDSON, and ROBERT RICHARDSON, Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

ALETA A. TRAUGER, District Judge.

Pending before the court are two motions in limine. Plaintiffs have filed a Motion in Limine Regarding Licensure Status ("First Motion in Limine ") (Docket No. 65), to which the defendant has filed a Response (Docket No. 71), and the plaintiff has filed a Reply (Docket No. 75). Plaintiffs have also filed a Motion in Limine Regarding Expert Testimony by Dale Farmer on Causation ("Second Motion in Limine ") (Docket No. 67), to which the defendant has filed a Response (Docket No. 72), and the plaintiffs have filed a Reply (Docket No. 76). For the reasons that follow, the First Motion in Limine will be granted and the Second Motion in Limine will be granted in part and denied in part.

This is an action that arises from a motor vehicle accident that occurred on Clarksville Pike, in Davidson County, Tennessee, on July 23, 2009. Robert Richardson ("Richardson"), then 15 years of age, was traveling north on a 2003 Kawasaki motorcycle and collided with a United States Postal Service ("U.S.P.S.") vehicle driven by U.S.P.S. employee Leslie Golston ("Golston"). Richardson was in possession of a Tennessee Class H hardship driving license, which allowed him to operate, in limited circumstances, a motorcycle with a motor cylinder capacity not exceeding 125 cubic centimeters. See Tenn. Code Ann. ยง 55-8-101(36). The Kawasaki had a motor cylinder capacity of 636 cubic centimeters.

The plaintiffs[1] brought suit against the United States pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act after exhausting their attempt to resolve their claims for property damages and medical bills on an administrative basis. The plaintiffs maintain that Golston was making an unsafe U-turn when he collided with Richardson, while the defendant contends that Golston was traveling north delivering mail as per usual when the accident occurred. Accordingly, the plaintiffs maintain that liability rests solely on the part of Golston, but the defendant contends that the negligence of Richardson in failing to avoid Golston was, at least, more than fifty-one percent at fault for the collision.

I. First Motion in Limine

Federal Rule of Evidence 402 provides that "[e]vidence which is not relevant is not admissible." Fed.R.Evid. 402. Rule 401 defines "relevant evidence" as "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." Id. 401.

In the First Motion in Limine, the plaintiffs seek to exclude, under Rules 401 and 402, "any testimony or other evidence as to the drivers' license status of Robert Richardson at the time of the collision, whether he was properly licensed to operate the motorcycle that he was riding at the time of the collision and/or other evidence regarding his legal status as a motor vehicle operator." First Motion in Limine at p. 1. The plaintiffs contend that this evidence is not relevant because, as a matter of Tennessee law, whether Richardson had a license or the right kind of license to operate the Kawasaki ZX636 is not relevant to a defense theory that Richardson was at fault for his own injuries and, therefore, is not admissible.[2]

The plaintiffs rely upon several Tennessee cases for the principle that the lack of proper licensing is an improper grounds for a defense of contributory negligence. In Brown v. Smith, 604 S.W.2d 56 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1980), the court considered whether a fourteen year-old's lack of a license to operate a motorcycle could be considered contributory negligence. The court found that there was no way a jury could have found that violation of the licensing statute was a proximate cause of the accident. Furthermore, the court found that there was no proof that the unlicensed driver had been anything other than a competent and qualified driver, although unlicensed, prior to the accident. The court was careful to remind the parties of the important rule that only violations of statutes that are proximate causes of the injuries of other parties will be admissible to bar recovery. Accordingly, Brown stands for the proposition that a violation of a motor vehicle licensing law, by itself, is not evidence of a violation of a duty owing to another person on the roadway (rather, the illegality is a mere condition, rather than cause, of the plaintiff's injury). A few years later, in Bowers v. Thompson , the Tennessee Court of Appeals was more succinct. The court noted that it had "no quarrel" with the plaintiff's assertion that "proof concerning her lacking a driver's license [was] inadmissible on the issue of her contributory negligence." Bowers v. Thompson, 688 S.W.2d 827, 828 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984).[3]

The defendant's Response to the First Motion is Limine is thoroughly unpersuasive. The defendant fails to even mention the straightforward caselaw raised by the plaintiffs, essentially waiving opposition to the plaintiffs' arguments based thereon. Instead, the defendant offers a convoluted tour of its prospective defense at trial, which it summarizes as follows: "[t]he defendant's theory of contributory negligence is that because the motorcycle was too large and powerful for the minor, and because [Richardson] was traveling at an impermissibly high rate of speed, he lacked the ability to react, stop, and otherwise avoid the collision." Response at pp. 2-3. After spending several pages reiterating the facts of the case, the defendant states in a conclusory fashion, with no caselaw support: "[t]he fact that the Richardson family allowed their son on a motorcycle that was too big, and too fast, for him, and was contrary to the specifications of his hardship license, is highly relevant. If Robert Richardson was on a motorcycle that was within the specification of his license, i.e., a legal motorcycle, he would not have been able to go as fast as he was going and would have had a better opportunity to stop when he came around the opportunity on Clarksville Pike, past the trees that obstructed the view as he was in the curve, and saw Mr. Golston doing whatever he was doing. In short, on a smaller, legal motorcycle, Mr. Richardson would have had more time to react."[4] See Response at pp. 5-6 (emphasis added).

This effort by the defendant to create a causal relationship between Richardson's licensure status and the accident fails. The Tennessee licensure statutes created a duty between Richardson and the state of Tennessee, not Richardson and Golston; the defendant has offered no precedent to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Richardson could not handle the Kawasaki 636cc motorcycle prior to the day of the accident or that he was in any way a dangerous driver. Pursuant to Brown and Bowers, the absence of the proper class of driving license does not relate to the accident in a manner sufficient to satisfy the requirements of proximate cause. Rather, the question of Richardson's due care can only be determined by his conduct at the time when the accident occurred. Simply put, the defendants have not established to the court's satisfaction that the specifications of Richardson's driver's license had any causal connection with the accident. Accordingly, the court will exclude evidence concerning Richardson's licensure status as irrelevant under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 401 and, therefore, inadmissible under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 402.

II. Second Motion in Limine

In addition to Rules 401 and 402, Federal Rule of Evidence 702 only permits expert testimony if it "will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue." Fed.R.Evid. 702. "Like all evidence, the admissibility of expert testimony is... subject to a determination of relevancy under Rule 401...." United States v. Geiger, 303 F.Appx. 327, 329 (6th Cir. 2008); see also Beck v. Haik, 377 F.3d 624, 637 (6th Cir. 2004) (requiring that an expert's testimony must "meet[ ] the general relevance requirement of Fed.R.Evid. 401 and the expert opinion requirements of Fed.R.Evid. 702"), overruled on other grounds by Adkins v. Wolever, 554 F.3d 650 (6th Cir. 2009). Thus, when determining admissibility, "the court must ensure that the proposed expert testimony is relevant to the task at hand and will serve to aid the trier of fact." United States v. Bunke, No. 09-3311, 2011 U.S.App. LEXIS 1158, at *20 (6th Cir. Jan. 19, 2011) (quoting United States v. Smithers, 212 F.3d 306, 313 (6th Cir. 2000)).

Federal Rule of Evidence 702 provides as follows:

A witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; (b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) the testimony is the product of reliable ...

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