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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Don't Rock The Boat: Iowa Appeal Reveals Differences Between Iowa And Federal Rule 407

The recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Iowa in Scott v. Dutton-Lainson Co., 2009 WL 398488 (Iowa App. 2009), reveals that there are significant differences between Federal Rule of Evidence 407 and Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.407.

In Scott, Stephen Scott, the manager of a boat dealership, was injured when the swivel jack on a boat trailer collapsed as he attempted to move the boat and trailer, with the tongue of the trailer landing on his foot. He thereafter sued the trailer manufacturer and the trailer jack manufacturer, Dutton-Lainson, alleging, inter alia, that the jack failed due to defects in its design and manufacture The trial court, however, precluded Scott from presenting certain evidence, such as evidence that Dutton-Lainson modified the pin of the swivel jack following his injury. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of Dutton-Lainson, Scott appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court improperly precluded the jack modification evidence

The Court of Appeals of Iowa noted that the admissibility of this evidence was governed by Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.407, which states that:

When, after an event, measures are taken which, if taken previously, would have made the event less likely to occur, evidence of the subsequent measures is not admissible to prove negligence or culpable conduct in connection with the event. This rule does not require the exclusion of evidence of subsequent measures when offered in connection with a claim based on strict liability in tort or breach of warranty or for another purpose, such as proving ownership, control, or feasibility of precautionary measures, if controverted, or impeachment.

This rule is thus significantly different from its federal counterpart, Federal Rule of Evidence 407, which states that:

When, after an injury or harm allegedly caused by an event, measures are taken that, if taken previously, would have made the injury or harm less likely to occur, evidence of the subsequent measures is not admissible to prove negligence, culpable conduct, a defect in a product, a defect in a product's design, or a need for a warning or instruction. This rule does not require the exclusion of evidence of subsequent measures when offered for another purpose, such as proving ownership, control, or feasibility of precautionary measures, if controverted, or impeachment.

As the Court of Appeals of Iowa noted, these are not merely superficial differences. Instead, the official comment to Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.407 states that:

The Rule excluding evidence of subsequent repairs originally rested on the notion that such repairs were irrelevant, or had little probative value, to the issue of the defendant's antecedent negligence. More recently, Courts and legislatures have frequently retained the exclusionary rule in negligence cases as a matter of "public policy," reasoning that the exclusion of such evidence may be necessary to avoid deterring individuals from making improvements or repairs after an accident. However, when the context is transformed from a typical negligence setting to the modern products liability field, the "public policy" assumptions justifying this exclusionary rule are no longer valid. This is because it is unrealistic to suggest that the contemporary corporate mass producer of goods, the normal products liability defendant, who manufactures tens of thousands of units of goods, will forego making improvements in its product, and risk enumerable additional lawsuits and the attendant adverse effect upon its public image, simply because evidence of adoption of such improvements may be admitted in an action founded on strict liability or breach of warranty for recovery on an injury that preceded the improvement....

Courts that have held Federal Rule of Evidence 407 or a similar state statute inapplicable in products liability actions have generally noted that a products liability case looks to, or emphasizes a defect in the product, rather than any conduct or culpable act on behalf of the manufacturer....

Therefore, it is the Committee's position that relevant evidence should not be excluded from a products liability case by an obsolete evidentiary rule when modern legal theories, accompanied by economic and political pressures, will achieve the desired policy goals.

Applying this reasoning, the court thus found that because the design defect case before it "'emphasize[d] a defect in the product, rather than any conduct or culpable act on behalf of the manufacturer,'" the trial court should not have used Rule 5.407 to exclude Scott's evidence and thus reversed. I'm not sure yet where I fall on this subsequent remedial measure debate, but this opinion certainly gives me some food for thought.

-CM

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