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GREENWICH INDUSTRIES, L.P. v. SPECIALIZED SEATING

May 15, 2003

GREENWICH INDUSTRIES, L.P. D/B/A CLARIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SPECIALIZED SEATING, INC., ALFRED HERGOTT AND DON SANDERFUR, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Suzannne B. Conlon, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Greenwich Industries, L.P. d/b/a Clarin ("Clarin") sues Specialized Seating, Inc. ("Specialized Seating"), Alfred Hergott ("Hergott") and Don Sanderfur (collectively, "defendants") for trade dress infringement in violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125 (a), Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, 815 ILCS 505/2, and Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. 815 ILCS 510/2, as well as common law unfair competition. The court denied the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment and set the case for trial. See Greenwich Industries, L.P. v. Specialized Seating, 2003 WL 1860271 (N.D. Ill. April 9, 2003). The parties move in limine to bar evidence at trial.

DISCUSSION

I. Stundard of Review

The background of these cases is discussed in the court's order addressing the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See Greenwich Industries, L.P. v. Specialized Seating, 2003 WL 1860271 (N.D. Ill. April 9, 2003). Evidence is excluded on a motion in limine only if the evidence is clearly inadmissible for any purpose. See Hawthorne Partners v. AT&T Technologies, 831 F. Supp. 1398, 1400 (N.D. Ill. 1993). Motions in limine are disfavored; admissibility questions should be ruled upon as they arise at trial. Id. Accordingly, if evidence is not clearly inadmissible, evidentiary rulings must be deferred until trial to allow questions of' foundation, relevancy and prejudice to be resolved in context. Id. at 1401. Denial of a motion in limine does not indicate evidence contemplated by the motion will be admitted at trial. Instead, denial of the motion means the court cannot or should not determine whether the evidence in question should be excluded before trial. United States v. Connelly, 874 F.2d 412, 416 (7th Cir. 1989).

II. Clarin's Motions in Limine

A. Admitted Facts

Clarin moves to have 155 factual statements allegedly admitted by Specialized Seating in its summary judgment pleadings and in response to Clarin's requests to admit read to the jury as stipulated uncontested facts pursuant to Local Rule 16.1.1. Clarin's motion is not a motion in limine, but rather a request for pretrial judicial findings of fact in a jury trial. Indeed, "Rule 16 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure does not authorize a court to force parties to stipulate to facts to which they will not voluntary agree." J.F. Edwards Construction Co. v. Anderson Safeway Guard Rail Corp., 542 F.2d 1318, 1322 (7th Cir. 1976). On this basis alone, Clarin's motion must be denied.

In any event, Claim's motion fails on the merits. Contrary to Clairn's position, Specialized Seating's purported admissions in its summary judgment pleadings and in response to Clarin's requests to admit are not conclusive judicial admissions:

[j]udicial admissions are formal concessions in the pleadings, or stipulations by a party or its counsel, that are binding upon the party making them. They may not be controverted at trial or on appeal. Indeed, they are not evidence at all but rather have the effect of withdrawing a fact from contention. A judicial admission is conclusive, unless the court allows it to be withdrawn; ordinary evidentiary admissions, in contrast, may be controverted or explained by the party. When a party testifying at trial or during a deposition admits a fact which is adverse to his claim or defense, it is generally preferable to treat that testimony as solely an evidentiary admission.
Keller v. United States, 58 F.3d 1194, 1198 n. 8 (7th Cir. 1995) (citations omitted). Specialty Seating's responses to Clarin's requests to admit are unquestionably evidentiary, rather than judicial, admissions. See Walsh v. McCain Foods Limited, 81 F.3d 722, 727 (7th Cir. 1996)QAdmissions obtained under Rule 36 may be offered in evidence at the trial of the action, but they are subject to all pertinent objections to admissibility that may be interposed at the trial"). Clarin fails to offer a legal basis for treating Specialty Seating's purported admissions in its summary judgment pleadings differently than its responses to Clarin's requests to admit. See Motion at 2, citing Moberg v. City of West Chicago, 00 C 2504, 2003 WL 255229, at *3 it 3 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 4, 2003) party's agreement in pretrial order to proposed uncontested fact constitutes binding judicial admission); Sanchez v. Commonwealth Edison Co., 00 C 752, 2002 WL 472263, at *6 (N.D. Ill. March 28, 2002) (facts deemed admitted for purposes of summary judgment based on party's failure to comply with Local Rule 56.1). Therefore, Clarin's motion must be denied.

B. Strength of Clarin's A-Back Chair

Clarin moves to exclude evidence relating to the strength of it's a-back chair as irrelevant. Evidence which is not relevant is inadmissible. Fed.R.Evid. 402. Relevant evidence is defined as "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence' Fed.R.Evid. 401. Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice and confusion of the issues. Fed.R.Evid. 403. Defendants respond by claiming that the strength of the A-back chair is relevant to the functionality of the B-back chair. See 15 U.S.C. § 1125 (a)(3) ("person who asserts trade dress protection has the burden of proving the matter sought to be protected is not functional").

"[A] feature is functional when it is essential to the use or purpose of the device or when it affects the cost or quality of the device." TrafFix Devices, Inc. v. Marketing Displays, Inc., 532 U.S. 23, 33 (2001). According to defendants, Clarin developed the B-back chair to correct a design flaw in the A-back chair that caused the chair to collapse. Evidence tending to show that Clarin developed the features at issue to improve the quality outs product is relevant to functionality. See Publications International, Ltd v. Landoll, Inc., 164 F.3d 337, 339 (7th Cir. 1998) ("Functional improvements may be patentable, or protected as trade secrets, but they cannot be appropriated in the name of trade dress even if they are distinctive").

Nevertheless, Clarin claims defendants' evidence will only prejudice and confuse the jury. Motion at 3. Specifically, Clarin argues that "the contested evidence can only engender ill will toward Clarin by suggesting it made a dangerous product" and "will confuse the jury about what it is supposed to consider — the quality of the A-back chair or the functionality of the B-back chair." Motion at 3. On this record, the court cannot assess whether Clarin will be unfairly prejudiced by defendants' evidence regarding design defects in Clarin's A-back chairs. If defendants' evidence is directed generally toward Clarin's motive in developing the B-back chair, it may not stiffer any prejudice. On the other ...


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