Perhaps the broadest discretion enjoyed by trial judges is in the admitting or excluding of evidence at trial. Much of the protection afforded a trial court judge in making evidentiary rulings is found in Rule 103 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, which clearly provides that an erroneous evidentiary ruling, standing alone, is not enough to get a case reversed on appeal.
First, as the rule makes clear, a bad evidentiary call isn’t even error unless it affects a “substantial right” of a party. In other words, even if the appellate court disagrees with the judge’s evidentiary ruling, if the ruling did not affect the “substantial rights” of a party, there will be no error on appeal. The second, and perhaps most significant reason why trial courts are rarely reversed on appeal for evidentiary rulings is because most errors are waived. Whether admitted or excluded by the court, Rule 103 provides the guideline on how to preserve error on the ruling.
If the error is one of admitting evidence, then the steps for preserving error are fairly simple. The party seeking its exclusion must make a timely and specific objection or motion to strike. The two essential components of this rule are that the objection be timely and include specific grounds, unless apparent from the context.
If the error is one of excluding evidence, then preservation of error becomes a bit trickier. In most circumstances, Rule 103 requires that the proponent of excluded evidence make an “offer of proof” in order to preserve any error on appeal.
An “offer of proof” is an informal bill of exception, and its purpose is two-fold: (1) to give the trial court a second chance to look at the evidence before finally ruling on its admissibility, and (2) to complete the record on appeal so that it is clear to the appellate court exactly what was excluded at trial.
With offers of proof, timing is key. Rule 103 provides that an offer of proof must be made before the jury is charged. This deadline makes sense. After all, if one rationale for requiring an offer of proof is to give the trial judge a second chance to make the correct ruling, it would make no sense for an offer of proof to occur after the time for introducing evidence has passed.
Trial courts have broad discretion in directing when the offer of proof can be made, but it is the attorney’s duty to make sure it’s timely. What this means is that if the trial court directs an attorney to wait until lunchtime, or the end of the day, or some other time to make the offer, it will be incumbent upon the attorney to remember to make the offer at the appropriate time. However, if the trial court refuses to allow an attorney to make the offer prior to the jury being charged, then reversible error has occurred. 4M Linen & Uniform Supply Co. v. Ballard, 793 S.W.2d 320 (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.] 1990).
Once the jury has been charged, the time for making an offer has passed. Tempting though it may be, it is inadvisable for the parties to “agree” to postpone the making of offers until after the jury has begun deliberations. While arguably a valuable time-saving device, this would thwart one of the primary purposes of the offer. After all, what would happen if the court actually decided to admit the evidence which the parties agreed to offer while the jury was deliberating?
Furthermore, an attorney should never make a late offer when the trial court has refused to allow a timely one. In this circumstance, the trial court has committed reversible error, and in the event of an adverse verdict, a new trial is guaranteed. Why make a late offer and risk satisfying the appellate court that the trial court’s ruling was correct after all? Id.
The mechanics of making an offer of proof are straight-forward. The proponent simply needs to demonstrate the nature of the evidence with enough specificity so that the appellate court can determine its admissibility. This can occur in one of two ways, both of which occur outside the presence of the jury.
The easiest way is for the attorney to summarize the substance of the testimony. Most attorneys and judges prefer this method because of its simplicity and expediency. The second method is to call the witness to the stand and elicit the testimony in question-and-answer form. While this approach is less convenient and more tedious, a question-and-answer format is mandatory if the other side demands it.
For tangible evidence, simply mark the evidence as an exhibit and request its inclusion in the record on appeal. (The same thing can be done for deposition testimony which has been excluded.)
Always keep in mind that an offer of proof is just that – an offer. Therefore, at the conclusion of the recitation or presentation of the evidence, the proponent of the evidence should re-urge its admission. As with any other offer of evidence, a ruling must be secured in order to preserve error. In other words, after giving the court a second chance to consider the evidence, the attorney should secure a final ruling on admissibility.
One last pointer for those who successfully argued for exclusion: If the excluded evidence could have been impeached or discredited through cross-examination, then it is a good idea to request a question-and-answer format during the offer of proof, followed by a request for brief cross-examination. On appeal, an effective cross-examination may demonstrate that there was no harm in the trial court’s exclusion of the evidence, even if such exclusion was erroneous.
– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas