August 7, 2019

Motion in Limine Does Not Preserve Error in State Court; Golden Corral Corporation v. Lenart

Category: Indianapolis Law Club | Author: | Share:

Some appellate opinions focus on a single issue. Others run the gamut. This is one of the latter, but the biggest takeaway is clear—renew any objections at trial that you raised in your motions in limine when trying a case in Indiana state courts.

The Lenarts went out for a meal at Golden Corral. Kristina took some chicken wings from a bin after it was brought out but found that it was raw when she bit into it. The Lenarts complained to the manager, who threw away the raw wing Lenart bit into. The Lenarts left the restaurant, and Kristina began feeling ill shortly thereafter. She was hospitalized for gastronomic pain and has experienced issues ever since.

Lenart filed a complaint against Golden Corral for serving the undercooked wing. Before trial, Golden Corral moved in limine to exclude the testimony of Lenart’s medical expert, Dr. Hutchinson, on grounds that her opinion did not meet the reliability requirements of Ind. Evid. R. 702 for admissibility of an expert opinion. The trial court denied that motion. Golden Corral did not object to Dr. Hutchinson’s testimony at trial.

During the jury trial, the trial court denied Golden Corral’s motion for judgment on the evidence. Lenart asked the trial court to instruct the jury on the doctrines of spoliation and res ipsa loquitur, and the trial court agreed to do so over Golden Corral’s objections. The jury returned a verdict of $240,000.

On appeal, Golden Corral argued that Dr, Hutchinson’s testimony should have been excluded. But the Court found that Golden Corral waived this issue by not objecting to the testimony at trial.

It is well established that a trial court’s ruling on a motion in limine does not determine the ultimate admissibility of the evidence; that determination is made by the trial court in the context of the trial itself. Case law makes clear that any objection to the challenged evidence must be reasserted at trial contemporaneously with the introduction of such evidence or the issue is waived.

This conclusion undermined Golden Corral’s argument concerning the sufficiency of the evidence, as this argument was “essentially a challenge to the weight to be afforded Dr. Hutchinson’s testimony on causation.” Given the fact that Dr. Hutchinson’s evidence was admitted without objection, concerns about the weight to be given her testimony were not enough to keep the case from the jury.

Golden Corral also challenged the two jury instructions Lenart requested. Spoliation was an issue because Golden Corral kept logs of the temperature of its food but destroyed them every 90 days. Golden Corral argued that a spoliation instruction was not warranted because there was no evidence that it intentionally destroyed this evidence. But the Court held that spoliation depends on a duty to preserve evidence, not on whether the spoliation is intentional. And the facts of this case showed that Golden Corral had a duty to preserve those temperature logs.

Here, we agree with Lenart that Golden Corral was immediately on notice of her illness and was contacted by her attorney within the ninety-day period during which Golden Corral retained its temperature logs. The buffet temperature logs were likewise relevant to the issue of whether Lenart contracted a foodborne pathogen from the barbeque chicken wings she consumed as the chicken wings had been prepared and served on Golden Corral’s buffet. Under these circumstances, Golden Corral had a duty to maintain such records. Because Golden Corral destroyed the buffet temperature logs despite its knowledge and duty, the spoliation instruction was warranted.

Golden Corral also argued that the instruction on res ipsa loquitur was unwarranted. Again, the Court disagreed, noting that Lenart introduced “sufficient evidence” to create “a reasonable inference” that she ate undercooked chicken and that this caused her illness.

Once a plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence to bring himself within the operation of the doctrine, the burden of going forward with the evidence to explain the accident is cast upon the defendant. Here, Golden Corral had the opportunity to defend itself and did offer other possible explanations for Lenart’s sickness (i.e., virus or foodborne pathogen with longer incubation period that Lenart contracted before she visited Golden Corral) and resulting injury. However, even though the defendant comes forward with an explanation of the accident and evidence of his careful inspection, tests, and due care, the inference of negligence drawn from the facts does not disappear from the case, but instead remains, and is placed upon the scales to be weighed by the trier of fact along with any and all explanations of the defendant, as well as all of the other evidence.

The verdict was affirmed.

Lessons:

  1. A motion in limine does not preserve issues for appellate review in Indiana courts; a party must make an objection at trial to preserve the error.
  2. The question of whether a spoliation jury instruction should be given depends on the duty to preserve evidence, not on whether the loss of evidence was intentional.
  3. The duty to preserve evidence may arise without a preservation of evidence letter from plaintiff.
  4. A jury instruction on res ipsa loquitor is appropriate if there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable inference that the doctrine applies.

P.S. The law in federal courts is different. Fed.R.Evid. 103(b): “Not Needing to Renew an Objection or Offer of Proof. Once the court rules definitively on the record—either before or at trial—a party need not renew an objection or offer of proof to preserve a claim of error for appeal.”