As a civil lawsuit becomes ready for trial the trial lawyers start to think about what evidence they intend to present to the jury to prove or defend their case. Evidence is typically developed during the discovery process where witnesses are deposed and documents, photographs and other physical evidence are exchanged. In many cases, testimonial and physical evidence might be discovered which would be inappropriate to present to a jury at trial. If you suspect that your opposing counsel might try to introduce improper evidence you would file a Motion in Limine, asking the trial court to preclude the introduction of that evidence.
The best way to understand a Motion in Limine is by way of example: Suppose in a car accident case a passenger suffers a severe leg injury resulting in partial amputation. The attorney for the injured party wishes to introduce gruesome photographs from the scene of the accident showing the plaintiff’s badly injured leg. Defense counsel might object to this because gruesome photographs can have an inflammatory impact on a jury and could unjustly influence the jury to render a higher damage award than might otherwise be proper. Courts routinely restrict the introduction of inflammatory evidence for this reason.
In the criminal context, in a rape case, defense counsel might try to introduce evidence of the victim’s prior sexual history. This would typically be improper and many states have enacted “rape shield laws” to preclude such evidence. These laws serve the same purpose as a Motion in Limine, which is to prevent the jury from hearing prejudicial evidence lacking in probative value in the underlying case. In civil cases, the Federal Rules of Evidence provide a procedure requiring a party attempting to offer evidence of prior sexual conduct to first file a motion with the court outlining the proposed evidence and allowing opposing counsel to object. The court then holds a hearing to determine whether the potentially inflammatory evidence can be introduced. The federal procedure puts the onus on the party offering the evidence to first make its intentions known, thereby triggering the Motion in Limine analysis by the court.
It is no secret that a successful defense often involves making the other party look bad; a successful plaintiff’s case often involves exaggeration of the defendant’s conduct or the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries. The Motion in Limine process is designed to allow the court to weigh the probative value of the proffered evidence against the prejudicial impact that the evidence might have on an unwitting jury. In the end, the goal is for all parties to receive a fair trial free of unnecessary emotion and oppressive litigation tactics.