Summaries of Evidence

February 26, 2012

Perhaps the best summary ever written appears in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a fictitious travel guide touted in Douglas Adams’ humorous five-part “trilogy,” Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as the most comprehensive source of information on intergalactic space travel destinations. In the Guide, planet Earth is summed up in two words: “Mostly harmless.”

Summaries are a very efficient means of communication.  They can also be an effective evidentiary tool at trial, especially when a jury, or judge for that matter, would be otherwise overwhelmed with voluminous data necessary to determine a fact issue in dispute.  In recognition of that, the Texas Supreme Court long ago wisely decided that in certain circumstances summaries should be allowed to substitute for voluminous documents at trial and established a three-part test for admission of summaries. Applying this test, a summary of records would be admissible as long as the underlying records on which the summary was based were:  (1) admissible, (2) voluminous, and (3) provided to the opposing counsel for inspection.  

The purpose of this common law rule was convenience and ease in handling of exhibits, a practical solution to the problem presented to the trier of fact who faces massive amounts of documents in evidence. 

Rule 1006 Summaries:

More than a decade later, the Texas Rules of Evidence codified the common law rule on summaries and expanded it to include recordings and photographs.  The three-prong test was also incorporated into the language of the rule.  TRE 1006 now provides: 

The contents of voluminous writings, recordings, or photographs, otherwise admissible, which cannot conveniently be examined in court may be presented in the form of a chart, summary or calculation.  The originals, or duplicates, shall be made available for examination or copying, or both, by other parties at a reasonable time and place… 

 Under Rule 1006, a summary which meets the original three-prong test has one additional hurdle to admission.  Pursuant to the express language of the rule, a proponent must show that the summary is necessary because the voluminous underlying materials “cannot conveniently be examined in court.”  Trial courts are given broad discretion to decide what is convenient and what’s not. Provided the summary meets the requirements of Rule 1006 and does not convey a false impression of the evidence, it should be admitted into evidence.

The value of a Rule 1006 summary is in the use the jury may make of it.  When a summary is admitted into evidence, it is sent to the jury room as an exhibit, the same as would the underlying records on which it is based.  The jury may rely on the summary as evidence and base a verdict on it.  This is the essential difference between a Rule 1006 summary and the next type of summary, the pedagogical summary. 

Demonstrative (Pedagogical) Summaries:

A demonstrative summary, or as the federal courts often call it, a “pedagogical summary,” is the most common summary used at trial.  Like a Rule 1006 summary, a demonstrative summary also summarizes evidence for the jury to consider.  It may look a lot like a Rule 1006 summary, but it serves a different purpose.  While a Rule 1006 summary is used for convenience, a demonstrative summary is generally used as a tool of persuasion. 

For example, a demonstrative summary chart might be used simply to connect evidence that might otherwise seem disjointed or unrelated, as opposed to summarizing voluminous data, which is the purpose of the Rule 1006 summary. While the demonstrative summary may also have the added benefit of being convenient to the jury in considering the evidence, it is used primarily to highlight or organize certain evidence to aid in persuasion.

Trial courts generally permit the use of demonstrative aids, including summaries, during trial, especially during closing argument, because they are useful to the jury in considering the evidence.  However useful they may be, though, demonstrative summaries have no place in the jury room during deliberations.  This is the primary difference between the Rule 1006 summary and the demonstrative summary – a Rule 1006 summary is evidence in and of itself, a demonstrative summary is not.

Business Record Summaries:

There is yet a third type of summary which is frequently offered into evidence at trial.  Like a Rule 1006 summary, it may be received as actual evidence and considered by the jury during deliberations as evidence, yet it doesn’t have to satisfy the Rule 1006 requirements for admissibility.  These are summaries of voluminous business records which are normally maintained in summary format.  If a summary is the format in which business records are normally kept, then they can be admitted under the rules of evidence providing for the admission of business records, such as Rule 902(10), instead of Rule 1006.

To determine whether the summary may be admissible as an exception to hearsay, rather than a Rule 1006 summary, one should look to its purpose.  Rule 1006 summaries (and demonstrative summaries) are prepared for the purpose of litigation.  In contrast, the business summary is prepared for use by the company who keeps the record.  If they are business record summaries, then their admission is governed by TRE 803(6), the business record exception to the hearsay rule.  None of the requirements of Rule 1006 will be a predicate to admissibility.              

As a practice pointer, don’t limit the use of summaries to jury trials.  Even in a bench trial, a well-organized demonstrative summary can be a surprisingly effective persuasive technique.  Perhaps even more helpful, however, is the Rule 1006 summary, which can save a judge countless hours of sorting through records, data or other information necessary to make a decision in a case.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


The Offer of Proof

October 1, 2011

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


Proof of Jury Misconduct During Deliberations

September 20, 2011

Texas jury verdicts are a lot like Las Vegas. Even the law recognizes that what happens in the jury room needs to stay in the jury room. 

With one exception (the “outside influence” exception), Texas Rules of Evidence 606 expressly prohibits jurors from testifying, either live or by affidavit, as to any matters that occurred during deliberations. In practical terms, this rule means that after the last argument is made and the door closes behind the twelfth juror entering the jury room, most anything that jurors say or do from that point until the verdict is returned to the courtroom is protected from disclosure. Whether jurors speculated as to liability insurance, tossed coins, drew straws, or conducted themselves in any other manner prohibited by law during deliberations, the only eye-witnesses who could testify about it are expressly prohibited from doing so.

Though two decades old, Daniels v. Melton Truck Lines, Inc. perhaps still provides the best example of the incredible reach of this rule. In that case, the trial court struck a motion for new trial’s supporting affidavits which outlined the following jury misconduct: 

(Juror Hamilton) kept repeating that she was a police officer…and her duties included patrolling, investigating … and issuing tickets…  She left the distinct impression that if we did not answer the questions as she thought they should be answered, that we would see her later and could suffer the consequences…  (S)he was angry and shouted down those who disagreed with her… She never directly threatened anyone but … indicated those disagreeing with her could see her later in the patrol car…  It is my opinion that the emphasis on her right to make arrests… had an influence on some of the jurors changing and siding with her…

Five other jurors came forward with similar testimony regarding Hamilton’s conduct during deliberations.  Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals agreed that the testimony fell squarely within the prohibition of Rule 606 and the trial court did not err in disregarding it.  704 S.W.2d 142 (Tex. App. — Eastland 1986), explaining:

Rule 606(b) bars testimony by any juror as to all matters or statements occurring during the course of their deliberations, except for testimony that “any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror.” As we read this rule, the statements by Juror Hamilton do not come within the exception and, consequently, proof of her statements and their effect is barred by the rule.

The Texas Supreme Court has upheld strict application of the rule, enunciating four public policy reasons which justify the prohibition against a losing party “putting the jury on trial.” Golden Eagle Archery, Inc. v. Jackson, 24 S.W.3d 362 (Tex. 2000). They are: 

  1. The need for jurors to be able to candidly discuss the evidence and issues without fear that their deliberations will be held up to public scrutiny; 
  2. The need to protect jurors from post-trial harassment or tampering;
  3. The need to protect proper verdicts from disgruntled jurors who might seek an avenue of vindication by attempting to overturn them, and
  4. The need for finality to promote public confidence in judgments.   

Given the huge evidentiary hurdle, what is an attorney to do when faced with allegations of jury misconduct which occurred during the deliberative phase of trial? 

  • Look to the exception in the rule:  Jurors are permitted to testify whether “any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror.”  (Note that this exception will also permit one juror to speculate as to influences on other jurors, not just on themselves.)  Although the Texas Supreme Court has never defined what kind of “outside influence” a juror may testify about, they have indicated that they consider an outside influence as something that must “originate from sources other than the jurors themselves.”  24 S.W.3d at 370.
  • Consider the obvious:  Judges, bailiffs and any other member of the court staff who have access and contact with members of the jury can be “outside influences” for the purpose of this rule.
  • Know what “deliberation” is (and isn’t):  While older cases defined deliberation as “any conversation regarding the case occurring between or among jurors … regardless of the time and place where it occurs,” the Supreme Court has expressly refused to accept such a broad definition.  Informal discussions among jurors during breaks are not part of deliberations, the Court has held, especially since jurors are specifically admonished not to engage in informal discussions.  In many charges, the jury is instructed only to deliberate “in the jury room when all members of the jury are present.”  If an attorney learns of misconduct which occurred in the jury room, a further inquiry as to how many jurors were present at the time could prove fruitful.  If jurors were missing from the room when the misconduct occurred, then the jury should not have been “deliberating” under the instructions of the judge.  Perhaps, then, the misconduct didn’t occur during “deliberations,” rendering Rule 606 inapplicable.
  • Look for other sources of evidence:  Sometimes competent evidence of juror misconduct can be proved using sources other than the jurors themselves.  Mayo v. State, 708 S.W.2d 854 (Tex. Crim. App. 1986) (testimony from a witness contacted by a juror).
  • Whatever you do, though, act quickly:  Assuming the evidentiary hurdles can be overcome, time is of the essence.  Complaints of jury misconduct must be raised by motion for new trial, giving an attorney a narrow window of opportunity to preserve error.  Thirty days after the judgment is signed, any right to raise a complaint of jury misconduct on appeal is lost. 

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


Use of Admissions at Trial

July 16, 2011

Admissions are powerful evidence.  Properly used, they not only conclusively establish the admitted fact, but they also serve to bar any evidence to the contrary.  The bar may be short-lived, however, if vigilance is not exercised to prevent inadvertent waiver.

Rule 198 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure addresses two types of admissions:  (1) admissions and (2) deemed admissions.  Of course, admissions respond to a request for admission by admitting the facts sought.  Deemed admissions occur when no response, or a late response, is made.  Deemed admissions are considered admissions without the necessity of a court order.

Both admissions and deemed admissions will retain their status as admissions until they have been withdrawn or amended by court order.  Hence, untimely denials, even if only a day or two late, are ineffective to negate deemed admissions.  Deemed admissions remain admissions until and through the date of trial, unless their withdrawal is sought and obtained by the trial court.

Most often admissions are read into evidence at trial.  However, this is not necessary if they have been filed with the court.  Admissions which are on file are effective without being introduced into evidence and will support a finding of that fact on final judgment.  Welch v. Gammage, 545 S.W.2d 223, 226 (Tex. App. — Austin 1977) (“[Although] the better practice is to introduce the requests for admissions and the responses into evidence… [nevertheless, they] may be considered as a part of the record if they were filed with the clerk of the court at trial time.”)

Whether admissions are read into evidence or simply filed with the papers of the court, no evidence which contradicts the admission may be introduced at trial over an objection.  In other words, the court should sustain any objection made to evidence which attempts to controvert the admitted fact.  The key, of course, is in lodging a timely objection.  Marshall v. Vise, 767 S.W.2d 699, 699 (Tex. 1989) (“a party waives the right to rely upon an opponent’s deemed admissions unless objection is made to introduction of evidence contrary to those admissions”).

Absent timely objection, however, evidence which controverts the admission may be properly received into evidence.  And once this happens, the admission is automatically downgraded from its status as a conclusively-proven fact and is relegated to mere evidence to be considered by the trier of fact.  Should this occur during a jury trial, then it becomes important that the admissions actually be formally received into evidence as well (as opposed to being on file with the clerk of the court).  Although there appears to be no case law on point, it is logical to assume that admissions which are of mere evidentiary value, i.e., admissions which simply furnish evidence on a fact in dispute, must be heard by a jury (as with any other piece of evidence), or they would not support a jury’s finding of fact consistent with them.

The treatment of admissions at the summary judgment stage, however, differs dramatically from that at trial on the merits.  Notwithstanding whether an objection is lodged, it seems well-established in case law that for purposes of summary judgment, the trial court cannot consider evidence which contradicts admissions.  Controverting evidence of this type will not create a fact issue to preclude summary judgment.  Instead, any evidence which controverts an admission is simply barred.  Beasley v. Burns, 7 S.W.3d 768 (Tex. App. — Texarkana 1999).

Beware, however, the Texas Supreme Court case which reversed a summary judgment based entirely upon deemed admissions.  Wheeler v. Green, 157 S.W.3d 439, 443 (Tex. 2005) (per curiam).  In Wheeler, the Supreme Court held that basing a summary judgment on deemed admissions alone was tantamount to a “merits-preclusive sanction” violative of due process. (“When a party uses deemed admissions to try to preclude presentation of the merits of a case, the same due process concerns [addressed in TransAmerican Natural Gas. Corp.] arise.”)

While Rule 198 places no limits on a party seeking any number of admissions of fact, opinion or application of law to facts, which, when combined, may serve to admit away an entire cause of action or defense, Wheeler cautions that admissions were “never intended to be used as a demand upon a (party) to admit that he had no cause of action or ground of defense.”  In light of this holding, one might expect that summary judgment motions based solely upon deemed admissions would be frowned upon by both trial courts and appellate courts upon review.

There are three other points which merit brief mention.  First, while admissions may be used by all parties in a case, they may only be used against the party who answered (or failed to answer).  This is true even in multi-party cases involving related persons and entities — an admission by one party cannot be used against another party, no matter how similar their interests.  Second, admissions may only be used in the case in which they were made.  And, finally, denials to requests for admissions are not admissible (although erroneous admission into evidence has been held to be harmless error).

– Judge Bonnie Sudderth, 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas

Update October 27, 2011:  See the recent Texas Supreme Court case reaffirming the holding in Wheeler regarding the use of admissions as a “merits preclusive sanction.”  http://www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us/historical/2011/oct/100854.pdf


Using Judicial Notice to Prove Facts

June 25, 2011

Rooted in the ancient maxim, manifesta non indigent probatione (that which is known need not be proved)  judicial notice is believed to be one of the oldest doctrines of common law.  Although archaic,  judicial notice today remains an extremely useful, yet often under-utilized, method of proof  in Texas courts.    

Not only is judicial notice an enormous time-saving device, it also carries with it strong evidentiary value, especially in the civil context, where a jury is instructed to accept as conclusive any fact judicially noticed and will hear no evidence to rebut it.  Texas Rules of Evidence 201(g), Edmund M. Morgan, Judicial Notice, 57 Harv. L. Rev. 269 at 279 (1944).  (In criminal cases, noticed facts are probative, but not conclusive.)

Judicial notice may be used to prove adjudicative facts (Rule 201), the laws of other states and foreign countries (Rules 202 & 203), as well as city ordinances and administrative agency rules and regulations (Rule 204).  In appropriate circumstances, the court is mandated to take judicial notice, and in many instances, judicial notice may occur sua sponte.  But in all circumstances, the rules require that the opposing side be given notice and an opportunity to be heard on the issue.

With regard to adjudicative facts, there are two types of judicial notice available:  notice of generally-known facts (TRE 201b[1]), and notice of facts capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned (Rule 201b[2]).  These two types of facts are quite different and distinguishable from one another.  For example, if the question at trial was whether the earth is round, as opposed to flat (as Flat Earth Society members still contend today), a court could take judicial notice under Rule 201b(1) that the earth is, in fact, round, because it is a fact generally known by persons of average intelligence and knowledge.  However, if more precision was necessary under the facts of a case, Rule 201b(2) would permit judicial notice to be taken that, in fact, the earth is NOT round, but an oblate spheroid, a fact not generally known, but nevertheless capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to reliable sources.

Even when judicial notice is employed, its scope and depth often remain untapped.  For example, few would hesitate to request judicial notice that the city of Fort Worth is located within Tarrant County.  But judicial notice can extend much further – certainly to the fact that a Starbucks is located in downtown Fort Worth on the west side of Houston Street between 3rd and 4th Streets, perhaps even to the fact that they sell beverages in three sizes:  tall, grande and venti.  Bender v. State, 739 S.W.2d 409 at 413 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th], 1987) (permitting judicial notice of the location of an MBank at a particular intersection inHouston).  The scope of judicial notice is not limited by level of detail, but by general knowledge and objective verifiability.

Another example of facts to which judicial notice should be taken are mathematical formulas, the laws of physics and other principles of natural forces, when supplied with necessary computations or information.  Drake v. Holstead, 757 S.W.2d 909 at 911 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 1988) (error found in a trial court’s refusal to take judicial notice of calculations of rates of speed, when supplied with mathematical computations to support it).  By invoking judicial notice in lieu of formal proof in these matters, an attorney can avoid at least two potentially unpleasant scenarios:  (1) putting a jury to sleep with tedious technical or scientific testimony, and, worse yet, (2) subjecting otherwise irrefutable evidence to debate, perhaps outright rejection, behind closed doors during jury deliberations. 

While judicial notice will cover matters such as the fact that there are twelve inches in a foot, it is not available for facts which are subject to reasonable dispute, such as the length of particular objects.  Brune v. Brown Forman Corp., 758 S.W.2d 827 (Tex. App. — Corpus Christi 1988).  This is a general rule, however.  Certainly the length of a football field or the dimensions of a 2005 Hummer H2 would both be ripe for judicial notice, because, again, they are capable of accurate and ready determination (or, in the case of the football field, generally known, at least within our own territorial jurisdiction). 

As a practical pointer, when judicial notice is sought on matters requiring reference to calculations, scientific treatises or the like, this is best heard in pretrial conference.  This will give the court an opportunity to consider whether these facts are the type to which judicial notice may be properly taken and/or whether necessary and adequate supporting information has been provided.  By scheduling the matter for hearing, all parties will be provided the requisite notice and an opportunity to be heard before the court takes judicial notice of the matter.  A ruling at the pretrial stage will also streamline case preparation and trial time by alleviating the burden of gathering and presenting evidence on matters which can be proved (conclusively!) through judicial notice.

– Judge Bonnie Sudderth, 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


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