The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blanche M. Manning United States District Judge
Eight motions in limine filed by plaintiff Lyle Vander Schaaf, the personal representative of the estate of Gregory Vander Schaff, and five motions filed by defendants Mark Rhodes and Midwest Transfer & Logistics are before the court.*fn1 Familiarity with the record and the court's prior rulings is assumed for the purposes of this order.
Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 1 to Bar Reference to Stephen Sorgatz, the Disclaimer, any South Dakota Probate Papers and any No Contact Orders [#117]
The plaintiff seeks to bar reference to the existence of Gregory's son, Stephen Sorgatz. Gregory placed Stephen for adoption. Stephen disclaimed his interest in Gregory's estate after Gregory's death, leading to protracted litigation before this court. The court has held that due to the disclaimer, Stephen predeceased Gregory as a matter of law. This leaves Gregory's mother and siblings as beneficiaries. The court also held that the mother and siblings' damages are measured based on their relationship with Gregory, and are not capped by what Stephen's damages would be based on his relationship with Gregory. Finally, it held that the defendants had waived any arguments based on South Dakota law or claims that the disclaimer was invalid.
Based on the court's prior rulings, evidence about the disclaimer and its legal effect (that Stephen is deemed to have predeceased Gregory) is excluded. The jury instructions can identify the mother/siblings as the beneficiaries, so evidence about the disclaimer and its effect on the ability of Gregory's beneficiaries to recover damages is irrelevant and will only serve to confuse the jury. For the same reasons, the South Dakota probate papers are inadmissible to the extent that the defendants seek to use them to contend that the disclaimer was invalid or relitigate the effect of the disclaimer. The court also notes that evidence about the disclaimer and the South Dakota probate proceedings is additionally irrelevant as these proceedings occurred after Gregory died. Thus, they could not have affected the relationship between Gregory and his mother/siblings while Gregory was still alive.
The plaintiff also seeks to bar evidence about a no contact order between Gregory and Stephen. The parties have not provided any details regarding the order. Thus, the court denies the motion without prejudice. However, any requests to utilize the order must be made outside the presence of the jury. The parties are advised that to the extent that the defendants contend that the existence of the no contact order caused a strained relationship between Gregory and the mother/siblings, references to the order appears to be relevant. However, the specific circumstances relating to the no contact order appear to be unduly prejudicial and tangential. For example, sibling X could testify that the existence of the no contact order disrupted a family Thanksgiving gathering and thus strained the relationship between sibling X and Gregory because Gregory and Stephen could not both attend. However, that sibling may not testify as to the details of the no contact order.
Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 2 to Bar Reference to Gregory Vander Schaaf's Alcohol and Mental Health Treatment [#118]
The plaintiff seeks to exclude evidence about Gregory's alcohol and mental health treatment. Evidence of strained relations between Gregory and the mother/siblings due to alcohol use or treatment for alcohol or mental health issues at specific times is admissible since the purpose of the trial is to assess damages flowing from Gregory's death based on his relationship with his mother/siblings. However, the details of the treatment are not probative of any of the factual issues to be determined at trial and are unduly prejudicial. The court further notes that no experts are testifying at trial, and the mother/siblings, as lay witnesses, cannot testify as to Gregory's mental condition. They may only testify about the details of their relationship with Gregory. Thus, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.
Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 3 to Bar Reference to Gregory Vander Schaaf's Smoking and Diabetes [#119]
The plaintiff seeks to bar the introduction of evidence about Gregory's diabetes (the record does not indicate which type) and history of smoking (the length of which is unspecified), to be used for the purpose of arguing that these conditions decreased his expected life span and thus affects loss of society damages. No expert discovery was taken in this case. The defendants did not identify the evidence they wish to introduce to support their claim that diabetes and smoking shortened Gregory's lifespan to an unspecified extent.
Given that no medical evidence appears to support their position, it is unclear whether the defendants will be able to present any admissible evidence at trial about the impact of medical conditions on Gregory's estimated lifespan. The court thus grants the plaintiff's motion in limine without prejudice to the defendants' ability to raise this issue again at trial outside the presence of the jury, accompanied by an offer of proof.
Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 4 to Bar Reference to Gregory Vander Schaaf's Possible Marijuana Use Over 30 Years Ago [#120]
The plaintiff represents that Gregory may have smoked marijuana in high school approximately thirty years ago and asks the court to bar any reference to marijuana use. Gregory was never convicted of any offenses connected to this alleged use of an illegal substance. The defendants do not object, with the understanding that they can introduce evidence about the alleged marijuana use if the plaintiff introduces evidence that Gregory never used illegal drugs at any time in his past. With this understanding, and based on the length of time that has transpired since the alleged marijuana use, the plaintiff's fourth motion in limine is granted.
Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 5 to Bar Reference to Gregory Vander Schaaf's Separation from the National Guard [#121]
The plaintiff seeks to bar evidence about Gregory's separation from the National Guard, which his relatives described as "less than honorable." The defendants do not object, with the understanding that they can introduce evidence about this subject if the plaintiff introduces evidence about his separation from the National Guard. Based on this understanding, the plaintiff's fifth motion in limine is granted.
Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 6 to Bar Evidence of Gregory Vander Schaaf's Being Physically Attacked While Working As A Truck Driver [#122] Next, the plaintiff seeks to bar evidence showing that Gregory was attacked while working as a truck driver. The defendants do not object, so the motion is granted.
Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 7 to Bar Reference to Any Alleged Criminal Record of Gregory Vander Schaaf [#123] According to the plaintiff, family members were asked at their depositions whether Gregory had been convicted of any crimes, and no evidence shows he was ever convicted of any crimes. The defendants do not object, so the plaintiff's seventh motion in limine is granted.
Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 8 To Bar Reference To An Alleged Altercation Between Gregory Vander Schaaf and Kara Donoghue Over 25 Years Ago [#124]
Kara Donoghue (Gregory's sister) testified that Gregory held her down and threatened her with violence in 1984 or 1985. Kara also assertsthat his alcoholism strained their relationship and that Gregory was hospitalized for mental health treatment based on threats made to an auto mechanic shop employee. In addition, another sister (Lynette Vander Schaff) testified that Kara told her that Gregory once threatened Kara with a firearm. The plaintiff's reply only appears to address the firearm issue. According to the plaintiff, the amount of time that has passed since the incident means that the probative value of the evidence is outweighed by its prejudicial effect.
The court finds that evidence about altercations between Gregory and his sisters is directly relevant to the damages at issue in this case, as the type of relationship Gregory had with his mother and siblings will form the basis of the jury's damages calculations. To the extent the plaintiff contends that any incidents are remote in time or did not have a lasting effect on the siblings' relationships, he can pursue this line of questioning at trial.
The court notes that this ruling is limited to any violence or threatened violence between Gregory and his mother/siblings, and the effect that it had. The defendants may not introduce evidence about other threatened violence against non-family members (e.g., the auto mechanic) unless they first demonstrate, outside the presence of the jury, that it is relevant to the relationship between Gregory and his mother/siblings. In addition, witnesses may not introduce hearsay (e.g., Lynette may not testify that Kara told her that Gregory once threatened ...