CHRYSLER GROUP LLC n/k/a FCA U.S. LLC
WALDEN et al.
suspect that bench and bar have become accustomed to hearing
the familiar recitation from this Court that Georgia's
"new" Evidence Code has changed the rules. Although
the new Evidence Code became law in January of 2013, meaning
that it is not so very new in its application, cases can take
some time to make their way to this Court on appeal.
Accordingly, we still have work to do in interpreting the new
Code, and this case gives us that opportunity. We hold today
not that compensation evidence is always admissible to show
the bias of an employee witness, or that it is never
admissible, but that such evidence is subject to the Rule 403
analysis weighing the evidence's unfair prejudice against
its probative value. Because Chrysler did not raise a Rule
403 objection to the compensation evidence at issue in this
appeal, we consider the question not under the ordinary
abuse-of-discretion standard, but as a question of plain
error. We conclude that under the particular circumstances of
this case-where the jury's evaluation of the bias and
credibility of Chrysler's CEO were central to the
allegations in the case because the CEO was alleged to have
specifically interjected himself in a federal safety
investigation to the detriment of the plaintiffs-we cannot
say that the prejudicial effect of the evidence so far
outweighed its probative value that its admission was clear
and obvious reversible error. Accordingly, although we
disagree with the rationale of the Court of Appeals, we
ultimately affirm its judgment.
to support the jury's verdict, see Citizens &
Southern Nat. Bank, 254 Ga. 131, 136 (327 S.E.2d 192)
(1985), the evidence shows that on March 6, 2012, Bryan
Harrell was driving his pickup truck at more than 50 miles
per hour when he rear-ended the 1999 Jeep in which
four-year-old Remington Walden was a rear-seat passenger,
with his aunt behind the wheel. The impact left Harrell and
Remington's aunt unhurt, but fractured Remington's
femur. The impact also caused the Jeep's rear-mounted gas
tank to rupture and catch fire. Remington burned to death
trying to escape; he lived for up to a minute as he burned,
and witnesses heard him screaming. Remington's parents
("Appellees") sued both Chrysler and Harrell for
trial, in March and April of 2015, Appellees challenged the
Jeep's vehicle design, arguing that Chrysler should not
have used a rear-mounted fuel tank. To avoid the operation of
Georgia's ten-year statute of repose, Appellees were
required to show not just that the gas tank was dangerous,
but that Chrysler had acted with "willful, reckless, or
wanton disregard for life or property." OCGA §
51-1-11. Evidence showed that Chrysler had long known that
mounting a gas tank behind the rear axle was dangerous.
Evidence also showed that Chrysler's placement of the gas
tank behind the rear axle was contrary to industry trends,
which favored placing tanks in front of the rear axle. In
2009, the federal Office of Defects Investigation
("ODI"), a division of the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration ("NHTSA"), had launched an
engineering investigation and recommended a recall of several
Jeep models with rear gas tanks, including the model at issue
in this case. Appellees emphasized that after Chrysler Chief
Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne met with two political
appointees heading NHTSA and the Department of Transportation
("DOT"), the model of Jeep at issue in this case
was excluded from the recall.
on the other hand, presented evidence that the vehicle met or
exceeded all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety
Standards and that many other vehicles of the era used
rear-mounted fuel tanks. Marchionne testified, and denied any
inappropriate political influence; he stressed that the NHTSA
investigation of the alleged defect ultimately resulted in a
conclusion that Chrysler's design did not pose an
unreasonable risk to safety. Appellee's counsel pressed
him to admit that he had persuaded NHTSA to resolve its
investigation without finding a defect in order to avoid a
drop in car sales, but Marchionne refused.
questioning Chrysler Chief Operating Officer Mark Chernoby at
trial, Appellees' counsel asked about CEO
Marchionne's salary, bonus, and benefits; Marchionne
himself was never questioned about his income and benefits.
Chernoby detailed Marchionne's annual pay, stock options,
and cash awards, which together totaled over $68 million. The
trial court overruled Chrysler's repeated relevance and
wealth-of-a-party objections to this line of questioning.
Evidence was also admitted, this time without objection, to
the fact that had Remington survived to adulthood he
"could even have been the chairman and CEO of a global
automaker." Appellees' counsel referenced
Marchionne's compensation again in closing, arguing,
"what [Chrysler's counsel] said Remi's life was
worth, Marchionne made 43 times as much in one year . . . .
We ask you to return a verdict for the full value of
Remington's life of at least $120 million . . . .
That's less than two years of what Mr. Marchionne made
just last year."
jury determined that Chrysler acted with a reckless or wanton
disregard for human life and failed to warn of the hazard
that killed Remington. In returning its award of $120 million
in wrongful death damages and $30 million in pain and
suffering damages, the jury found Chrysler 99 percent at
fault and Harrell 1 percent at fault. The trial court reduced
these damages to $30 million and $10 million respectively
when it denied Chrysler's motion for a new trial.
opinion affirming the trial court's order, the Court of
Appeals approved the admission of Marchionne's
compensation evidence, stating that "evidence of a
witness's relationship to a party is always
admissible" and that Marchionne's compensation
"made the existence of [Marchionne's] bias in favor
of Chrysler more probable." Chrysler Group, LLC v.
Walden, 339 Ga.App. 734, 743 (792 S.E.2d 754) (2016).
The Court of Appeals also rejected Chrysler's argument
that the trial court had committed legal error by not
comparing damage awards in prior similar cases, on the
grounds that "no two cases are exactly alike."
Id. at 750. This Court thereafter granted
Chrysler's petition for certiorari, posing two questions:
(1) Whether the Court of Appeals erred in determining that
evidence of Chrysler's CEO's compensation was always
admissible to show party bias under OCGA § 24-6-622? See
also OCGA § 24-4-403; and (2) Whether the Court of
Appeals erred in failing to consider prior awards in similar
cases to determine whether the remitted award of damages was
excessive under OCGA § 51-12-12?
question at trial was who, if anyone, was liable for
Remington Walden's death. As the case comes to us on
appeal, however, the first question is about Georgia's
Evidence Code, which was more fairly characterized as
"new" at the time of the trial than it is now. In
considering whether evidence of Marchionne's compensation
was properly admitted, the Court of Appeals interpreted OCGA
§ 24-6-622, which addresses evidence relating to a
witness's feelings about and relationship toward the
parties, as a super-admissibility rule meaning, essentially,
that any evidence at all of a witness's bias would always
be permitted, no matter how prejudicial or otherwise
improper. Chrysler, on the other hand, relies primarily on
the "longstanding common law rule banning party
wealth" to assert that the evidence should have been
barred. Neither is correct, but to understand why, we need to
consider Georgia's new Evidence Code as a whole.
first establish our parameters of interpretation.
Georgia's new Evidence Code was modeled in large part on
the Federal Rules of Evidence, "and when we consider the
meaning of such provisions, we look to decisions of the
federal appellate courts construing and applying the Federal
Rules, especially the decisions of the United States Supreme
Court and the Eleventh Circuit." Glenn v.
State, 302 Ga. 276, ___ (806 S.E.2d 564) (2017)
(punctuation and citation omitted); see also Davis v.
State, 299 Ga. 180, 185 (787 S.E.2d 221) (2016);
State v. Frost, 297 Ga. 296, 299 (773 S.E.2d 700)
(2015). Then, there are provisions that "were carried
over from our old Evidence Code, and when courts consider the
meaning of those provisions, they may rely on Georgia
decisions under the old Code." Frost, 297 Ga.
at 299 (citing Bradshaw v. State, 296 Ga. 650, 654
(769 S.E.2d 892) (2015)).
this framework in mind, we consider the statutory text. Three
rules provide a backdrop for Georgia's new Evidence Code.
First, 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." OCGA § 24-4-401. Rule 402
then sets a broad standard of admissibility for evidence
deemed relevant: "All relevant evidence shall be
admissible, except as limited by constitutional requirements
or as otherwise provided by law or by other rules." OCGA
§ 24-4-402. In contrast, "[e]vidence which is not
relevant shall not be admissible." Id. Rule 403
guards against unfair prejudice, mandating that judges
consider the balance between how useful or
"probative" the evidence is and how likely it is
that the evidence will cause a factfinder to decide a case on
the wrong grounds: "Relevant evidence may be excluded if
its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger
of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading
the jury." OCGA § 24-4-403. Rule 403 offers crucial
protections to litigants but "the exclusion of evidence
under Rule 403 'is an extraordinary remedy which should
be used only sparingly.'" Olds v. State,
299 Ga. 65, 70 (786 S.E.2d 633) (2016) (citations omitted).
statutory interaction between Rule 403 and the relevancy
rules demonstrates at the outset that not all evidence that
"shall" be admissible according the Rules may
always be entered in every instance; that rule specifically
notes that relevant evidence is only admissible if it is not
subject to constitutional requirements or other limitations.
By standardizing rules concerning both the presumptive
admissibility of relevant evidence and the judicial exclusion
of certain otherwise admissible evidence, Rules 401, 402, and
403 overlay the entire Evidence Code, and are generally
applicable to all evidence that a party seeks to present.
See, e.g., State v. McPherson, 341 Ga.App. 871,
873-74 & n.8 (800 S.E.2d 389) (2017) (citing United
States v. McGarity, 669 F.3d 1218, 1244 (V) (B), n. 32
(11th Cir. 2012) for the proposition that evidence admitted
under Rule 414 (a) must also satisfy Rule 403); cf.
Daubert v. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509
U.S. 579, 587 (113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469) (1993) (when
interpreting the Federal Rules of Evidence, "Rule 402
provides the baseline").
again, not all of our new Evidence Code is "new."
One "holdover" provision from the old set of rules
with no federal counterpart is Rule 622, which was applied by
the Court of Appeals to uphold the admission of the
compensation evidence in this case. See OCGA § 24-6-622.
The Court of Appeals held that "any 'concerns
regarding prejudice in this instance must yield to the
statutory mandate'" of Rule 622 because
"'[t]he state of a witness's feelings towards
the parties and his relationship to them may always be
proved for the consideration of the jury.'"
Chrysler Group, 339 Ga.App. at 743 (quoting
Orkin Exterminating Co. v. McIntosh, 215 Ga.App.
587, 592 (452 S.E.2d 159) (1994) (quoting Rule 622))
(emphasis in original). Although that quote is accurate, the
contention that it supports is incorrect. Rule 622 indeed
provides that "[t]he state of a witness's feelings
towards the parties and the witness's relationship to the
parties may always be proved for the consideration of the
jury." But concerns regarding prejudice need not yield
to our Evidence Code's so-called "statutory
mandate" regarding evidence of bias; to the contrary,
the Evidence Code specifically provides that for some
evidence, unfair prejudice may outweigh probative value. See
OCGA 24-4-403. Although relevant evidence, including a
witness's bias, "shall be admissible,
" under the Rules, that evidence is not ...