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Decker v. I.E. Miller Services, Inc.

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

February 2, 2018

Scot Decker, Plaintiff,
v.
I.E. Miller Services, Inc., n/k/a Hemphill Trucking, Inc.; TFI Holdings, USA, Inc.; TransForce, Inc.; TForce Energy Services, Inc. d/b/a Specialized Crane & Rigging Complete Production Services, Inc.; and Superior Energy Services, Inc., Defendants.

          ORDER RE PLAINTIFF'S MOTIONS IN LIMINE

          Charles S. Miller, Jr., United States District Court Magistrate Judge

         Before the court are a number of motions in limine brought by plaintiff at Doc. No. 105. A hearing was held on the motions on January 29, 2018. The following are the court's rulings to the extent the court is prepared to make them at this time:

         1. Motion to exclude evidence of other well site accidents involving Cyclone Drilling Inc. or Cyclone Rig 20.

         2. Motion to exclude evidence other lawsuits in which Cyclone Drilling or any of the parties to this case may be involved.

         Defendants seek to introduce evidence of accidents that occurred on Cyclone Rig 20 prior to the accident in this case and at least one subsequent accident. After careful review, the court concludes that the accidents referenced in the briefing and during argument on the motions in limine are being offered simply to demonstrate a propensity on the part of Cyclone Drilling, Inc. (“Cyclone”) to engage in unsafe conduct in order to support the ultimate conclusions that Cyclone likely conducted its operations in an unsafe manner at the time of the accident and that this was a proximate cause of the accident. At bottom, this is character evidence that is inadmissible under subsection (a) of Fed.R.Evid. 404 unless there is basis for its admission under subsection (b)(2). See First Sec. Bank v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 152 F.3d 877, 879-80 (8th Cir. 1998); Shelley v. White, No. 1:09-cv-00662, 2010 WL 1904963, at *2 (M.D. Ala. May 12, 2010); cf. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Accident Victims Home Health Care Serv. Inc., 467 Fed.Appx. 368, 371-74 (6th Cir. 2012); And, in this case, defendants have failed to offer what the court would consider to be a plausible exception, given the particular facts and circumstances of this case. See id.; see also Underwriters at Lloyd's London v. OSCA, Inc., Nos. 03-20398, 03-20817, 03-21021, 2006 WL 941794, at **7-8 (5th Cir. April 12, 2006) (concluding that evidence of a prior rig accident was admissible but only because of the “apparent similarities between the two incidents, and the similarity in the causes attributed to the two”). Notably, the product liability cases cited by defendant are inapposite.

         Morever, even if there existed a plausible basis for the admission of the “other accident” evidence under Rule 404(b)(2), whatever probative value it might have (which is slight, at best, given the dissimilarity between the other accidents and the one at issue in this case) is outweighed by one or more of the Fed.R.Evid. 403 factors. These include the likelihood the evidence: (1) will mislead the jury by diverting its focus from the unique circumstances of this case; (2) result in unfair prejudice to the plaintiff as a consequence; and (3) likely result in a waste of time because of the probability of having to conduct mini-trials over the other accidents with respect to which plaintiff will be particularly disadvantaged due to a lack of access to relevant evidence bearing upon those accidents. In reaching these conclusions, the court has relied upon the fact that the other accidents involved substantially different circumstances and, for the most part, different personnel. Further, it appears all of the other accidents occurred during Cyclone's drilling operations in which it had, more or less, complete control over the operations occurring on the rig as opposed to here, where control over the “rigging up” activity as part of the rig move appears to have been shared between Cyclone and I.E. Miller Services, Inc. (“I.E. Miller”).

         For these reasons, Motions in Limine Nos. 1 & 2 are GRANTED and neither plaintiff nor defendants may mention or offer evidence of (1) any other well site accidents involving Cyclone Drilling Inc. or Cyclone Rig 20, or (2) any other lawsuits in which Cyclone Drilling or any of the parties to this case may be involved.

         3. Motion to exclude proof or argument concerning plaintiff's insurance or workers' compensation benefits.

         This motion, which is unopposed, is GRANTED on Fed.R.Evid. 402 and 403 grounds to the extent that defendants may not mention or offer evidence of any insurance coverage that plaintiff may have or the fact that he has or is currently receiving workers' compensation benefits without first seeking the approval of the court outside the presence of the jury.

         4. Motion to exclude proof or argument accusing plaintiff of any criminal activity.

         This motion is GRANTED on Fed.R.Evid. 402 and 403 grounds to the extent that defendants may not mention or argue that any particular act of the plaintiff amounts to criminal conduct without first seeking the approval of the court outside the presence of the jury. This is not intended to prohibit, however, defendants from mentioning or offering evidence of plaintiff's history of drug use as addressed in more detail later. This includes plaintiff's use of drugs that the jury likely will otherwise understand was unlawful.

         5. Motion to exclude evidence that Cyclone was an unsafe or cheap drilling company or that Cyclone had 200-300 employees working on Rig 20 during the accident year.

         This motion is GRANTED on Fed.R.Evid. 402, 403, and 404(a) grounds to the extent that defendants may not mention or offer evidence of Cyclone generally being an unsafe or cheap drilling company or that it had 200-300 employees working on Rig 20 during the accident year without first seeking the approval of the court outside the presence of the jury. The reasons are those expressed by the court with respect to the grant of Motions in Limine Nos. 1 & 2. Also, with respect to the number of employees, the suggestion here is that it was untrained employees that led to the accident in this case. However, aside from plaintiff, it appears that all of the other Cyclone employees who may have had anything to do with this accident (and the jury might very well conclude there were none other than the plaintiff) were not new employees. This being the case, extended evidence and argument over how many employees are required to operate a rig on a 24/7 basis with allowance for shifts off and whether the reasons for the purported churn (1) has little probative value in terms of this case, (2) will likely lead to jury confusion, and (3) will be time wasting.

         The court's ruling does not, however, prohibit defendants from offering evidence from a qualified expert that any act or practice engaged in by Cyclone or any of its employees on the day of the accident was unsafe or contrary to good industry practice. Nor does it prohibit defendants from offering evidence with respect to plaintiff's training, or lack of it, including any lack of supervision on the day of the accident that good industry practice may have required.

         6. Motion to exclude evidence that plaintiff has received, has been entitled to receive, will receive, or will become entitled to receive, benefits of any kind or character from a collateral source, including, but not limited to, the following:

A. Benefits from collateral insurance coverage;
B. Compensation for time not actually worked;
C. Social security or pensions;
D. Medicare or Medicaid benefits;

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