Courts are often asked by plaintiffs’ counsel to admit evidence of other similar incidents (OSI) in order to show a defendant’s knowledge of an alleged defect, and/or causation. Plaintiffs have used this approach to tap into the power of strength in numbers and will typically seek to introduce evidence of as many “similar” incidents as a trial court will allow. Although the law allows for the introduction of this type of evidence, a trial court must carefully balance the relevancy of this evidence versus the prejudicial effect. The Eighth Circuit in Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., recently examined the admissibility of evidence of other similar instances in an automotive “unintended acceleration” case. Plaintiff Koua Lee was driving his 1996 Toyota Camry on the highway. While exiting the highway, the car continued to accelerate, failing to stop as he pressed on the brake. Lee rear ended a car stopped at a red light, killing three of the five passengers in the stopped car and severely injuring others, including passengers in his own car. The Court of Appeals, in upholding the trial court’s decision to admit this evidence, affirmed that evidence of substantially similar incidents can be admitted in appropriate circumstances, and that the trial court is in the best position to determine whether or not this evidence is a distraction to jurors or is otherwise unduly prejudicial.
Weighing in favor of admissibility, OSI evidence can be relevant in that it can show a party had notice of defects. It may also be used to demonstrate the magnitude of the danger and the product’s lack of safety for its intended uses. But there are limitations to the use of OSI evidence. The prior incidents must be “substantially similar” to the incident in the case at hand. And the probative nature of the evidence must outweigh its potential for prejudice.
Here, the Court explained that there are no hard and fast rules to determine if the evidence is substantially similar. It is a case by case determination, and the court must focus on all the circumstances surrounding the OSI evidence and the facts of the case. When OSI evidence is admitted, a defendant is free to argue to the jury the evidence is not persuasive by pointing out the dissimilarities between the purported “similar” incident, and the incident presently being litigated.
In determining that there was no abuse of discretion in admitting this evidence, the Court stated the trial court properly looked at the circumstances surrounding the OSI evidence and that evidence was similar to what happened to plaintiff. Each witness drove a 1996 Camry with over 100,000 miles. Each witness testified that the Camry accelerated or maintained speed when his foot was removed from the gas pedal and the brakes were ineffective. Testimony from these three witnesses was very similar to testimony from the plaintiff. Additionally, an expert witness reviewed the OSI evidence and testified that he considered the three witnesses’ experiences to be similar to the plaintiff’s experience. The appellate court also approved of the trial court’s exercise of cautious discretion in limiting the OSI testimony to three witnesses.
There is a risk of admitting OSI evidence. As the Court noted, it can lead to a confusion of issues or be more prejudicial than useful. However, the trial court is in the best position to make sure that this does not occur. As long as the trial court does not abuse its discretion, the admittance of OSI evidence will be upheld.
“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
Animal-Welfare Advocate Roger Caras
(quoted by Court of Appeals Judge Lawrence E. Mooney)
I am an unabashed dog-person. Thus, a recent opinion out of Missouri’s Eastern District Court of Appeals, which entangled a dog’s adoption story with the law, immediately had me hooked.
Other than what I read in the Court’s opinion, I do not personally know Mack the Dog, nor the other dramatis personae in this case, and I am not here to provide commentary or an opinion on any of them. So I will limit my discussion to the Court’s legal analysis, and its potential implications for future cases.
If you are still reading, you likely are also a dog-person and/or would like to know more about the dog-gone contract at issue.
In Patterson v. Rough Road Rescue, Inc., the Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision to return a dog named Mack to, according to the Court, its rightful owner, plaintiff Patterson.
The trial court had found in favor of Plaintiff who made a claim for replevin, a civil remedy and “possessory action to obtain property that is in the defendant’s possession,” after Defendant Rough Road Rescue would not return the dog. Mack had previously been adopted from the rescue shelter by Patterson and had been picked up in town and returned to the shelter after wandering off from Plaintiff’s yard. To succeed on such a claim of replevin, a plaintiff must show:
- The plaintiff owned the property or was entitled to possess it;
- The defendant took possession of the property with the intent to exercise some control over it; and
- The defendant, by exercising such unauthorized control over the property, deprived the plaintiff of his right to possession.
On appeal, Defendants argued that the trial court erred in its decision because 1) the adoption was not governed by the UCC in that “the adoption was not a ‘sale’ and because they are not ‘sellers’ or ‘merchants’ as defined by the code, 2) the terms of the contract, under which Patterson adopted Mack, provide a reversionary interest in the dog permitting defendants to retake and retain the dog when the terms of the Animal Adoption Contract were breached, and 3) the $2500 bond posted, which was due to an individual defendant’s failure to comply with the trial court’s order to return Mack, was grossly excessive.
The Court of Appeals’ affirmation of the trial court’s decision, finding replevin was properly granted due to the adopter (Plaintiff) being the rightful owner, came after a de novo review of Plaintiff’s claim to possession of Mack based on Rough Road Rescue’s Animal Adoption Contract. Unlike the trial court, the Court of Appeals focused not on whether a dog was actually a “good” under the UCC and/or whether the adoption was a “sale” contemplated by the UCC, but rather on the interpretation of the Contract. Personally, as one who has always considered my dogs as family, I felt uneasy about the trial court’s label of the dog as a “good” and thought that there needed to be a discussion about that label and the law, but perhaps the Court wanted no dog in that fight, for now.
Plaintiff’s claim was based on the Contract; thus, the issue presented was of contract interpretation. “A cardinal principle of contract interpretation is to ascertain the intention of the parties and to give effect to that intent.” The Court honed in on five specific “conditions” set forth in the Contract. The first, third, and fourth addressed fairly standard conditions, setting a timeline for the adopted pet to be spayed/neutered, providing the adopted pet with humane care, and complying with all laws and ordinances applicable to the adopted pet where the adopter lives. The tenth was an additional, handwritten requirement that the adopter agreed to provide a fenced yard for the adopted pet by a certain date.
Where there is ambiguity within the four corners of a contract – i.e., the language used “is reasonably susceptible to two or more interpretations” - then the Court looks at such external factors as the relationship of the parties, circumstances of the execution of the contract and its subject matter, acts of the parties, and circumstances which may shed light on the intent of the parties. A court “construes the ambiguity and interpret the contract in the light most favorable to the party who did not draft the contract.”
In this case, the Court found at least some portions of the Contract ambiguous, largely within the language of the ninth condition, which stated:
9. Any noncompliance of this adoption contract by the above mentioned owner, may void this contract. And could immediately give a representative of Rough Road Rescue, Inc. the authority to take possession of said animal. (emphasis added)
Since the contract was drafted by Rough Road Rescue, the Court construed the contract, including the ninth provision above, against Rough Road Rescue and in favor of Plaintiff. Also, of note, is that Rough Road’s own personnel, who were involved in the drafting of the Contract, even disagreed about the meaning of many of its terms, such as adoption, providing further support of the Contract’s ambiguity.
The use of the words “may” and “could” were central to the Court’s analysis. In interpreting condition #9, the Court reasoned that “‘may’ and ‘could’ are conditional words as to what might occur, rather than what must result.” This repossession provision also clearly stated that the adopter was the owner, which implied that the adopter obtained ownership (full and exclusive rights), not just possession (which can be temporary and/or partial) of the adopted animal, therefore, the Court concluded that the Contract did in fact grant Plaintiff ownership of Mack and rejected what it found to be an unreasonable result if Rough Road Rescue was permitted to keep such a long leash on the potential repossession of Mack.
Lessons learned from this dog-gone contract? First, use assertive, mandatory language, such as “shall void” (not “may void”) and “must” (not “could”) if you want a stronger argument of a right to repossession of property. Second, make sure those who draft your contract are all in agreement with what those contractual terms mean (perhaps you want to get that agreement in writing too). Third, be cognizant and purposeful with the language that you use in your contracts, to avoid a “ruff” result.
“Slack Fill” Litigation under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act: Save it for Summary JudgmentAugust 30, 2017 | Martha Charepoo
In two consecutive nearly identical opinions, a Missouri federal court ruling on food merchandisers’ motions to dismiss indicates that food labeling protections in Missouri strongly favor consumers, including in slack fill cases. (The term “slack fill” refers to the alleged use of over-sized packaging that could mislead a consumer into believing the package contains more product than is actually present.) In Bratton v. The Hershey Company and White v. Just Born, Inc., the Western District of Missouri refused to dismiss claims against candy manufacturers for selling under filled boxes of Reese’s Pieces and Whoppers (Hershey) and Hot Tamales and Mike and Ike’s (Just Born), thereby allowing both class actions to proceed to the discovery stage. Hershey and Just Born are among several food merchandisers that have recently found themselves in court over claims by consumers that they are being cheated by slack filling.
In both cases, the plaintiffs allege deceptive packaging in violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA), in that the candies they purchased came in opaque, rigid, cardboard boxes containing slack-filled space, making plaintiffs think that they were a better value than smaller packages. The plaintiffs argue that consumers spend an average of 13 seconds making purchasing decisions, and that such a decision is heavily based on the product’s packaging. The lawsuits allege that between 29 to 41 percent of the candy boxes are empty, but nothing prevents the candy companies from reducing the box size or adding more candy. The plaintiffs also contend that slack-filled space serves no practical purpose and that they would not have purchased the products or would have paid less for them had they known the boxes were under filled. The plaintiffs seek “benefit of the bargain” damages, measured by the difference between the actual value of the products versus their value as represented.
In each case, the candy company asked the court to dismiss the plaintiff’s MMPA claim, arguing that these allegations are not enough to show that they violated the MMPA or that the plaintiff suffered an “ascertainable loss”, as required by the statute. The candy companies contended that a reasonable consumer would readily realize the candy boxes are not filled to the top because their contents “audibly rattle.” The candy companies also said that it is common knowledge that most packaged goods contain some empty space, which is “necessary for efficient manufacturing and distribution.” The candy companies argued that consumers are not misled because information about the net weight of the contents, the number of pieces of candy per serving, and the number of servings in the box are clearly listed on the box.
These arguments did not persuade the court that the cases were subject to immediate dismissal. The court stated that whether a reasonable consumer would notice rattling in the 13 seconds it typically takes to make a purchase, and then be able to determine the amount of slack fill, are questions of fact that cannot be resolved before there has been fact discovery on these issues. In both opinions the court relied on the Missouri Court of Appeals decision in Murphy v. Stonewall Kitchen, LLC (see prior post) involving muffin mix labeled as “all natural” while disclosing in the ingredient list that it contained sodium acid pyrophosphate. There, the Missouri Court of Appeals said a reasonable consumer would expect the ingredient list to comport with the packaging. The court stated that the same reasoning could apply in both of these cases. Thus, the court decided that it cannot conclude at this stage of the litigation that the packaging is not misleading.
The message of these decisions is that reasonableness under the MMPA is an issue of fact that should be saved for summary judgment or trial.
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