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A Defendant's Naked Admission of Liability Won't Rob You of the Legitimate Moral Force of Your Evidence

Defense counsel will sometimes make a tactical decision to admit liability in a negligence action, typically shortly before trial and often in a case that involves aggravated negligence. Defense counsel will then file a motion in limine seeking to bar the plaintiff from presenting liability evidence at trial.

The inspiration for this defense tactic is premised on the idea that removing the particulars of a defendant’s negligent conduct from a case will predispose the jury to take a conservative view on the plaintiff’s damages, especially when defense counsel argues the “virtue” and “magnanimity” of the defendant’s admission of liability. Obviously, it is beneficial in such a case for the plaintiff to show the jury that the defendant initially denied liability and then show evidence that demonstrates the clear and aggravated nature of the defendant’s negligence.

Fortunately for plaintiff’s counsel, longstanding Missouri case law clearly and unambiguously establishes a plaintiff’s right to present evidence of a defendant’s fault in a negligence action, notwithstanding a defendant’s blanket admission of liability. The rationale underlying this Missouri case law is that a defendant should not be allowed to escape full responsibility for the consequences of his or her conduct through a blanket admission of liability.

The Missouri Court of Appeals, in Ruppel v. Clayes, 72 S.W.2d 833 (Mo.App. 1934), ruled that a party is not bound by the admission of his adversary but may prove the admitted fact. In so ruling, the Ruppel court recognized that:

[p]arties, as a general rule, are entitled to prove the essential facts, — to present to the jury a picture of the events relied upon. To substitute for such a picture a naked admission might have the effect of robbing the evidence of much of its fair and legitimate weight. No exception lies to the admission of relevant evidence under such circumstances. Id. at 836.

For nearly three quarters of a century, Ruppel has been followed by Missouri Courts and has never been questioned. Franklin v. Byers, 706 S.W.2d 230, 231 (Mo.App. 1986) (citing McKay v. Delico Meat Products Co., 174 S.W.2d 149 (Mo. 1943) and Steele v. Goosen, 329 S.W.2d 703 (Mo. 1959)); see also Ingram v. Rinehart, 108 S.W.3d 783, 792 (Mo.App. 2003) and Burrows v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 218 S.W.3d 527 (Mo.App. 2007)). The rationale underlying this longstanding rule in Missouri is that “[a] colorless admission by the opponent may sometimes have the effect of depriving the party of the legitimate moral force of his evidence ….” Wigmore on Evidence, 3rd Ed., sec. 2591.

In Ingram, 108 S.W.3d 783, 785, the plaintiffs, Renee Ingram and Kelly Krohn, brought suit against the defendant, Michael Rinehart, for serious injuries they sustained as a result of a motor vehicle collision. The plaintiffs also sought punitive damages against Rinehart because he was intoxicated at the time of the collision. Id.

At trial, Rinehart admitted liability for the subject collision and also the amount of Ingram and Krohn’s medical expenses and economic damages. Id. Accordingly, the only issues left for the jury to resolve were a) the amount of the plaintiffs’ non-economic damages and b) whether to award punitive damages against Rinehart. Id. The jury returned substantial verdicts in favor of both Ingram and Krohn, but denied their punitive damages claims. Id.

Rinehart appealed, arguing among other things, that the trial court erred in admitting certain testimony and other evidence regarding a) the circumstances of the underlying automobile accident and also b) his intoxication at the time of the accident. Id. Rinehart contended that such evidence was irrelevant and prejudicial because he admitted liability. Id.

Such evidence included the testimony of several witnesses describing the circumstances leading up to the accident itself, and its aftermath. Id. at 792. During this testimony, photographs of the accident scene were also admitted. Id. The trial court also allowed admission of certain demonstrative evidence, including several beer glasses, despite Rinehart’s concession that they were probably the same size as those he was drinking the night of the subject collision. Id. Additionally, the trial court permitted questions regarding beer cans found in the back of Rinehart’s truck on the night of the collision. Id.

The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that the trial court committed no reversible error in the proceedings below. Id. In so ruling, the Ingram court noted as follows:

The party bearing the burden of proof is not bound to a party’s admission. Franklin v. Byers, 706 S.W.2d 230, 231 (Mo.App. 1986); Ruppel v. Clayes, 72 S.W.2d 833 (Mo.App. 1934). Instead, that party may elect to present evidence to prove the issue at jury trial. Ruppel, 72 S.W.2d at 835. Furthermore, that testimony and evidence was also admissible because it was directly relevant to the disputed issues regarding plaintiffs’ special damages and their claim for punitive damages. There was no error in admitting the challenged testimony and evidence. Id.

More recently, in Burrows, 218 S.W.3d at 532, the plaintiff Curtis Burrows brought a FELA claim against his employer, Union Pacific, and a negligence claim against Amtrak to recover damages for personal injuries he sustained after he was struck by an Amtrak train while he and his co-workers were working on a section of track near Washington, Missouri.

The section of track in the area of the accident was part of a double “mainline track,” consisting of two parallel, adjacent tracks running east-west. Id. Union Pacific owned both tracks and permitted Amtrak to operate trains on the tracks subject to Union Pacific’s control over train movement and speed. Id. While Burrows and his crew repaired one track, Union Pacific permitted Amtrak to operate trains on the adjacent track. Id.

During the repairs, Burrows was working with a co-worker, Tim Miesner, using a tamper. Id. A tamper is a 75 to 80 foot long machine with two fully enclosed cabs. Id. Burrowsworked from one cab, while Miesner worked from the other. Id. Normally, Burrows could operate the tamper from the inside of his cab. Id. However, because a button inside the cab for releasing the clamps to lift the track did not work, Burrows had to exit the tamper’s cab, stand between the track under repair and the adjacent track, and manually release the clamps. Id. Union Pacific knew about this problem with the tamper about one week before the accident in question because its employees had requested that it be fixed. Id.

While Burrows was outside of the cab, an Amtrak employee radioed Miesner and told him that an Amtrak train was approaching and would soon be passing on the adjacent track. Id. at 532-33. Burrows did not receive the radio message because Union Pacific had not provided him with a radio device. Id. at 533. Although Burrows was outside of the cab in an unsafe position, Miesner responded to the radio message and stated that no workers were on the adjacent track. Id. Miesner also neglected to inform Burrows that the Amtrak train was approaching his location. Id.

As the Amtrak train approached at a speed of 66 miles per hour, the engineer operating the Amtrak train saw Burrows from a distance of 2600 feet away. Id. The engineer sounded the train’s horn. Id. Burrows could not hear the horn because he was wearing ear plugs and because the tamper generates its own loud noise and vibrations. Id. In addition, because Burrow was working on the track with his back to the oncoming train, he could not see it approaching. Id.]

After the engineer saw Burrows, he accelerated the Amtrak train from 66 miles per hour to 73 miles per hour. Id. The Amtrak train struck Burrows at this speed. Id. As a result, Burrows was thrown to the ground and suffered numerous physical injuries*. Id.

Both defendants denied liability in their answers to Burrow’s petition and also asserted comparative fault affirmative defenses against Burrows. Id. Prior to trial, Union Pacific “admit(ted) liability for the negligence of its employee, [Miesner], in failing to warn [P]laintiff of the approach of the Amtrak train and admit(ted) liability for any injuries of [P]laintiff which were proximately caused by the occurrence of September 23, 2003.” Id.

The case was tried before a jury. Id. On the third day of trial, Amtrak withdrew its comparative fault affirmative defense. Id. On the last day of trial, Amtrak admitted “liability for any injuries of [P]laintiff which were proximately caused by the occurrence of September 23, 2003.” Id. At the close of all the evidence, both defendants moved to “strike all the evidence that has been introduced into this case concerning the liability issues[.]” Id. The trial court denied defendants’ motion and instructed the jury on negligence. Id.

The jury returned a verdict against Defendants and found Burrows total damages to be $5 million. Id. After the trial court denied the defendants’ motion for a new trial, the defendants appealed. Id.

In their first point on appeal, defendants argued that the trial court erred in denying their motion for a new trial because it admitted evidence concerning defendants’ negligence when “liability was unequivocally admitted by Defendants.” Id. at 534. Such evidence consisted of testimony concerning a) the project on which Burrows was working, b) the machinery involved on the project, c) the specific facts of the accident, d) Union Pacific’s safety program, e) the speed of the Amtrak train, f) the site of the accident, g) the Amtrak train schedule, h) general railroad safety rules, i) train braking, j) train warning devices, and k) the stopping capabilities of locomotives. Id. Defendants contended that because they admitted liability, the above-cited evidence concerning their negligence was irrelevant. Id.

*Burrows alleged that he suffered injuries to his hand, shoulder, spine, hips, and legs, that he sustained severe pain and suffering, psychological and emotional injury, and mental anguish and anxiety.

The Burrows court rejected defendants’ argument, specifically ruling that:

[e]ven when a defendant makes an unqualified admission of liability, a plaintiff has the right to introduce evidence relevant to the issue of liability.” Id. (citing Ruppel, 72 S.W.2d at 835). A defendant “cannot deprive [a] plaintiff of the right to present to the jury, in his own way, competent and relevant evidence to show all the circumstances attending [to] the accident.” Id. (quoting Ruppel, 72 S.W.2d at 835) (emphasis in original). To allow a defendant to substitute a “naked admission” for a full picture of the events may rob the evidence of much of its fair and legitimate weight. Id. (citing Ruppel, 72 S.W.2d at 836).

Pursuant to well-established Missouri case law cited above, a plaintiff has a clear and unambiguous right to present evidence of a defendant’s fault in a negligence action, notwithstanding a defendant’s blanket admission of liability. Missouri courts will not allow a defendant to deprive a plaintiff of the legitimate moral force of his or her evidence through a colorless admission of liability.