Atlanta—The Georgia Supreme Court last month upheld a $40 million award against Chrysler for the death of a toddler in a Jeep fuel tank explosion, and in doing so outlined key elements in the state’s five-year-old Evidence Code.
In a unanimous opinion as to the judgment, if not all of the underlying reasoning, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Decatur County Superior Court Judge J. Kevin Chason’s admission into evidence of the compensation of Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne at the 2015 trial against the auto giant for the death of four-year-old Remington Walden.
That trial, recorded gavel-to-gavel by CVN, ended with a $150 million verdict against the company after jurors found Chrysler responsible for a fuel tank defect that caused the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in which Walden was sitting to explode when the vehicle was struck from behind.
That award was ultimately reduced to $40 million on remittitur. However Chrysler challenged the judgment, claiming the trial court erred in admitting evidence of Marchionne’s earnings, which totaled more than $68 million in pay, stock options, and other compensation from Chrysler.
In an opinion drafted by Justice Britt Grant, the Court rejected the contention that the evidence was barred under the state’s common law rule prohibiting evidence of party wealth. Beyond the fact that Marchionne, as Chrysler CEO, was not a party, Grant wrote, the state’s Evidence Code, which went into effect in 2013, ended the common law’s blanket ban on such evidence.
“[T]he new Evidence Code does not work in conjunction with the old evidence rules when the two cover the same territory—it replaces them,” Grant wrote.
The Court concluded evidence of Marchionne’s compensation was potentially admissible under OCGA § 24-6-622, (Rule 622), which allows evidence addressing a witness’s feelings and relationship toward parties, but was subject to the balancing test underlying OCGA §24-4-403, (Rule 403), which excludes otherwise relevant evidence deemed unduly prejudicial, confusing, or a waste of time.
Importantly, however,the Court noted Chrysler attorneys had failed to argue the potential prejudicial effect of the compensation in raising a 403 objection. Thus, rather than being subject to review under an abuse of discretion standard, the trial court’s admission was subject to the lower “plain error” standard.
And under that level of review, Grant wrote, the trial court’s decision to admit Marchionne’s compensation did not warrant reversal.
“[W]e cannot conclude that under the facts of this case the prejudicial effect of the compensation evidence (which was admittedly significant) so dramatically outweighed its probative value that the decision below must be reversed,” the Court stated. “[T]he actions of the CEO were directly relevant to the claims at hand, and his credibility (or lack thereof) was central to the question before the jury.”
The Court noted its decision could have been different under an abuse of discretion standard. And, in his concurrence, Presiding Justice Harold Melton went farther, urging restraint in the admission of such evidence, and noting Marchionne’s earnings ultimately made their way into closing arguments on damages.
“I would caution the bench and bar to be wary of the use of employee compensation evidence as a means of showing a witness’ bias, because such evidence can be highly inflammatory and lead to unfair prejudice,” Melton wrote, “and because there are other ways to show an employee’s potential bias without referencing their actual income.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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