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Chrysler Group LLC v. Walden

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 15, 2018

CHRYSLER GROUP LLC n/k/a FCA U.S. LLC
v.
WALDEN et al.

          Grant, Justice.

         We 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.

         I.

         Construed 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 wrongful death.[1]

         At 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.

         Chrysler, 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.

         When 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."

         The 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.

         In its 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?

         II.

         The 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.

         A. We 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)).[2]

         With 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).

         The 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").

         But 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 ...


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