A Defendant’s Offer to Stipulate Should Not Disrupt the Narrative Force of Plaintiff’s Evidence at Trial
A tort defendant whose negligence was obvious or shocking will sometimes offer to stipulate to liability before trial, leaving the jury to consider the issue of damages in isolation. The Law Court’s recent decision in State v. Michaud addresses the extent to which such an offer prevents a plaintiff from adducing evidence about how a car crash occurred, or why using the wrong motor in a wheelchair lift caused it to come crashing down, for instance (2017 ME 170). The criminal defendant in Michaud crossed the yellow line and hit another driver head-on, while attempting to pass several cars ahead of her. Before trial, she offered to stipulate that the driver and passenger in the car she hit had suffered “serious” injuries. The prosecutor nevertheless put on evidence of the victims’ exact injuries.
In reasoning that applies equally in civil cases, the Law Court explained the relevance of the exact injuries, even if the stipulation is accepted. The results of the crash—the exact injuries that occurred—were proof of the nature of the crash and how it occurred. The Michaud court went further, acknowledging that evidence has value beyond its relevance. Quoting the Supreme Court case Old Chief v. United States, it explained: “People who hear a story interrupted by gaps of abstraction may be puzzled at the missing chapters” and an assurance that missing logical links exist, is “never more than second best.” Plaintiffs should insist on their right to tell a complete story. Under Michaud, a tort defendant’s stipulation to liability should not prevent the plaintiff from putting on evidence of negligence that is relevant and necessary to her case.
The Law Court’s Recent Decision in Plante v. Long Illustrates the Danger of a “Piecemeal” Approach to Evidence In Summary Judgment Decisions
Trial judges deciding a pretrial motion may be tempted to view the evidence in a “piecemeal rather than cumulative fashion,” without the complete narrative provided by a trial, warned the dissent in Plante v. Long (2017 ME 189). Quoting a law review article by Arthur R. Miller, Justice Jabar noted the danger of judges being tempted to draw inferences against the nonmoving party, or discount the nonmoving party’s evidence, when deciding a motion for summary judgment without the “safeguards and environment” of a trial.
The majority in Plante v. Long held that two brothers, a fire chief and assistant fire chief for a town in Maine, had failed to make a prima facie case that the defendant, an outspoken critic of the fire department and its leadership, had spoken with “actual malice” in sending emails about the brothers. At issue was whether the defendant had been reporting verifiable, black-and-white facts, or stating his opinion about ambiguous events.
The majority in Plante v. Long arguably succumbed to the temptation Arthur R. Miller warned of, weighing competing versions of the facts and drawing inferences against the brothers in ruling against them. Plante v. Long is an important reminder that in a time when summary judgment is playing an increasingly important role, a plaintiff must build a strong evidentiary foundation for each element of a claim before discovery closes.