One of the earliest motions I learned to write while working as a law clerk was a motion in limine. Perhaps because of the brevity and intentionally narrow scope of these motions, the job of preparing and opposing them seems to regularly fall on young associates.
(For the benefit of readers who are unfamiliar, a motion in limine is a document which asks the court to rule on the admissibility of an item of evidence in advance of, trial and outside the presence of, the jury. One example might be a motion in limine asking the judge in an automotive product liability case to issue an order evidence that a driver was intoxicated on the grounds that the driver’s intoxication is not relevant to whether there was a defect in the vehicle that caused injury.)
The relegation of these motions to clerks or younger lawyers suggests to me that lead trial lawyers believe such motions are simple, should be straightforward or have only a minor impact on the trial. I want to argue this thinking is as mistaken as the assumption that a novelist’s craft is more complex than that of a short story writer.
Even if trial lawyers don’t see it this way (at least at first), I’ve heard many judges confirm the notion that prevailing in most trials comes down to one or two issues, or facts, or items of evidence. We’re often stuck with our good or bad facts. But to the extent one side can identify those one or two issues or facts, and devote resources to capitalizing or eliminating them from the jury’s “universe,” this can strongly impact the outcome.
Consider a couple of examples, starting with the intoxicated driver above. The defendant will want to apportion fault to a driver for causing a crash to occur in the first place. That one of the drivers was drunk makes this much easier (even if the forensic evidence suggests the driver did not cause the crash, the jury will automatically assume he did regardless of the evidence). The plaintiff, then, might want to move to exclude this evidence on relevance grounds (and potentially because it could distract the jury from the product manufacturer’s alleged fault). Success on this motion could be a game-changer for the outcome of the trial.
Another example. What if the defendant in a sexual harassment case had a history of prior complaints against him with the same employer by other women. The plaintiff will obviously view such evidence as crucial to winning her case. However, if the defendant employer, through a well-crafted motion in limine was able to keep the prior complaints out of evidence because they were factually dissimilar from the plaintiff’s complaint, this could literally “gut” the plaintiff’s case against both the alleged harasser and the employer (who could be held liable for continuing to employ the harasser following the prior complaints).
I hold the view that many lawyers do not effectively use motions in limine. They are often superficial, or thrown together and filed as an after-thought. They often file too many, diluting the importance of any individual motion in the eyes of the court. So I offer the following thoughts on how to more effectively seek (or oppose) pretrial evidentiary rulings.
Think of A Motion in Limine As A Knight, Not A Pawn. My biggest beef with the way most lawyers–on both sides of the table–use pretrial motions is the sheer volume of motions they file. In a not especially complex wrongful death case, I once had to oppose 29 separate motions in limine. And these came from the plaintiff’s firm. A really good plaintiff’s firm.
What’s wrong with too many in limine motions? The biggest problem is the burden on the court, the judge and her clerks. We all know the lawyers have to work day, night and weekends preparing for trial, but do you really want to be the one unnecessarily causing the judge and court staff to be pulling all-nighters? I don’t.
A subtly related reason not to over-file pretrial motions is that the judge and her clerks will quickly realize you’re unfocused and may (correctly?) conclude you don’t know what you’re doing. At the very least, after reading 3 or 4 frivolous in limine motions, there’s a good chance the court will give your arguments in all of the remaining motions short shrift.
Avoid the trap of viewing motions in limine as Pawns on the chess board of trial; see them instead as the Knights. This piece is the surgical bad-ass who silently eviscerates your opponent’s key pieces. In other words, leave out the true no-brainer motions, like excluding reference to insurance or settlement discussions. Look instead for opportunities to creatively shape the evidence that gets in front of the jury.
Don’t Just Crank Them Out. A major upside of being selective about pretrial motions and leaving out the kitchen sink is that it frees you, your associate and/or clerk up to prepare a real motion. You know, with citations to authorities, and even excerpts of deposition transcripts that support your position. It also frees up the judge and her staff to read and take seriously just a few well-written, properly supported arguments. They won’t be so pissed off with having to read 14 separate motions (just from one party) that they deny or put off considering the issues until they come up during the trial (which is exactly what they will do–trust me).
Meet and Confer. Regardless whether the rules of court or standing order require it, you should meet and confer, preferably in writing, before filing any motions. And be sincere in this effort, even if you believe it will be fruitless. As recently as three weeks ago my opposing counsel, in a case in which we were electronically filing documents, sent me an email inviting me to meet and confer on his anticipated pretrial motions. The problem was he sent this email quite literally 8 minutes before his office began the process of electronically filing 17 different motions in limine. It’s like a waitress who sets down a plate of bacon and eggs and asks what you’d like to order for breakfast. Don’t think I didn’t highlight this to the court. (I mean the weak meet and confer effort, not the bacon and eggs analogy.)
It Shouldn’t Be A Last Minute Exercise. I think about evidence exclusion from day one, and particularly during depositions. If I hear something in a deposition that I know I’m ultimately not going to want the jury to hear, I’ll make a note of it and go back and consult these notes when it comes time to think about pretrial evidence exclusion. While I had been, up until recently, an enemy of the dreaded deposition summary, I’ve come around and believe that preliminary thoughts about how to exclude a problem witness or keep out harmful testimony should be included in my new-and-improved deposition summary.
Again, well-planned and well-crafted motions in limine can be game-changing if they win. Hopefully, these suggestions will improve your chances of success.