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Abney v. Badger Mutual Insurance Co.

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

January 9, 2014

GLEN ABNEY and BEECHER SOMEWHERE IN TIME, INC., Plaintiffs,
v.
BADGER MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

GERALDINE SOAT BROWN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiffs Glen Abney and Beecher Somewhere in Time, Inc. ("Beecher") allege that defendant Badger Mutual Insurance Company ("Badger") breached a commercial insurance contract by refusing to pay for fire damage to the building where Mr. Abney operated Beecher. (Am. Compl.) [Dkt 22.] Mr. Abney owned the building, which included a second-floor apartment above the business. ( Id. ¶ 6.) Badger contends that there is no coverage under the contract because Mr. Abney intentionally set the fire. (Def.'s Ans.) [Dkt 23.] A jury trial is scheduled to begin on February 24, 2014. [Dkt 61.] The court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, [1] and the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636. [Dkt 18.] Before the court are Badger's motions in limine. [Dkt 65-68.] Plaintiffs have not filed any motions in limine but have responded to Badger's. [Dkt 69-72.] The motions are ruled on as set forth below.

Legal Standard

A motion in limine should be granted if the evidence "clearly would be inadmissable for any purpose." Jonasson v. Lutheran Child & Fam. Servs., 115 F.3d 436, 440 (7th Cir. 1997); see Betts v. City of Chicago, 784 F.Supp.2d 1020, 1023 (N.D. Ill. 2011). "The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating blanket inadmissibility." Wielgus v. Ryobi Techs., Inc., 893 F.Supp.2d 920, 923 (N.D. Ill. 2012). If that standard is not met, "evidentiary rulings should be deferred until trial, where decisions can be better informed by the context, foundation, and relevance of the contested evidence within the framework of the trial as a whole." Id. Denial of a motion in limine is not a ruling that the material subject to the motion is necessarily admissible; it "means only that outside the context of trial, the court cannot determine whether the evidence in question is admissible." Plair v. E.J. Brach & Sons, Inc., 864 F.Supp. 67, 69 (N.D. Ill. 1994).

Discussion

I. Motion in Limine No. 1 to Bar Evidence of Other Insurance Claim

Badger first moves to exclude any evidence of AAA Insurance Company's ("AAA") payment to Mr. Abney under a separate insurance policy covering personal property in the second-floor apartment. (Def.'s Mot. No. 1 at 1-2.) [Dkt 65.] Badger relies on Fed. R. Evid 403, which allows the court to "exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence." As the Seventh Circuit explains, "when the evidence appears to be of slight probative value, district courts may properly exclude it under Rule 403 to avoid a series of collateral trial[s] within the trial' which would result in confusion and undue delay." Stopka v. Alliance of Am. Insurers, 141 F.3d 681, 687 (7th Cir. 1998) (quoting Sims v. Mulcahy, 902 F.2d 524, 531 (7th Cir. 1990)).

Badger maintains that mention of AAA's decision to provide coverage would mislead the jury because it did not influence Badger's denial of coverage. (Def.'s Mot. No. 1 at 3.) Badger further argues that allowing discussion of AAA's decision would lead to needless waste by requiring a "mini-trial" about differences between the companies' investigations and coverage decisions. ( Id. at 3-4.) In support, Badger asserts that AAA's coverage was for a significantly smaller amount than Badger's. (According to Badger, the personal property claim was in the amount of approximately $27, 000, while the claim for the building was in the amount of approximately $180, 000.) ( Id. at 2 n. 2.) Badger also says that its investigators conducted a more thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding the fire, including Beecher's finances and an eyewitness neighbor's account. ( Id. at 4.) In response, plaintiffs argue that it is "disingenuous" for Badger to argue that AAA's investigation and decision did not influence Badger's investigation and decision because representatives from the two companies "testified that they exchanged email communications regarding their respective claims while they were pending" (the emails were not provided to the court) and purportedly split the cost of a "Cause and Origin Report" for the fire. (Pls.' Resp. No. 1 at 1-2.) [Dkt 69.] Plaintiffs argue that it is "unquestionably relevant" that the companies came to different conclusions in part based on this same piece of evidence. ( Id. at 1-2.)

Plaintiffs overstate the probative value of AAA's coverage decision. The central question in this case is whether Badger breached the terms of its policy with plaintiffs by denying coverage on the ground that the cause of the fire at issue was incendiary. Although AAA and Badger may have considered some of the same information to arrive at their respective decisions, the plaintiffs have not pointed to any evidence that AAA's coverage decision influenced Badger's. The mere fact that the companies' employees communicated about the fire during the investigatory process is not enough to show that AAA's coverage decision played any part in Badger's decision. Plaintiffs also emphasize the shared cost of the origin report, but why is that relevant to prove that Badger's decision was wrong? AAA insured a different risk under a different contract for a different amount and may have had reasons for its decision unrelated to whether or not Badger's decision was correct. Thus, AAA's decision to cover Mr. Abney's personal property, even after consideration of the same origin report as Badger, is of questionable use to plaintiffs' case. See Allendale Mut. Ins. Co. v. Bull Data Sys., Inc., No. 91 C 6103, 1994 WL 502955 at *2 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 13, 1994) (refusing to compel discovery of other insurers' coverage of fire damage because other insurers' decisions about whether fire was arson was not relevant to judge's determination of that question at bench trial).

Moreover, there is a substantial risk that introduction of evidence about AAA's coverage decision will confuse the issues, mislead the jury, and waste time. If evidence of AAA's coverage decision is admitted, Badger would need to present evidence about differences in the terms of the policies, AAA's process for investigating and deciding claims, and differences in insuring personal belongings versus commercial property. Any probative value of AAA's coverage decision is substantially outweighed by the likelihood that Badger's efforts to distinguish AAA's decision will turn into a trial within a trial on an issue that has little bearing on whether Mr. Abney intentionally set fire to his building. Thus, the evidence is properly excluded. See Manuel v. City of Chicago, 335 F.3d 592, 596-97 (7th Cir. 2003) (upholding exclusion of evidence of other discrimination accusations to avoid "mini-trials" distinguishing them); Intl. Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 998 F.2d 504, 508 (7th Cir. 1993) (upholding exclusion of reinsurer's position in earlier litigation because evidence would confuse and mislead jury); Allendale Mut. Ins. Co., 1994 WL 502955 at *2 (concluding that "[e]ven if such information [about other insurers' coverage of fire damage] is relevant, the tremendous detour it would entail to fully understand why other insurers did not follow the path taken by [insurance company at issue] would warrant exclusion of such evidence due to the extreme waste of time to obtain evidence of minimal probative value").

At this stage, Badger's motion in limine no. 1 to bar discussion of AAA's payment of Mr. Abney's claim is granted. If, however, it later becomes evident that AAA's coverage decision has more relevance to Badger's decision than the mere fact that AAA paid the claim and Badger did not, plaintiffs may request reconsideration of this ruling.

II. Motion in Limine No. 2 to Open and Close Case

Second, Badger argues that it should be allowed to open the case, present its evidence first, and close last because it "has the burden of proof on its affirmative defenses." (Def.'s Mot. No. 2 at 1.) [Dkt 66.] Badger cites Moylan v. Meadow Club, Inc., 979 F.2d 1246, 1251 (7th Cir. 1992), which affirmed a district court's reversal of the order of summations when the only remaining issue at closing was the defendant's affirmative defense.

The court is not convinced, however, that Badger should be allowed to present its case first. First, Moylan underscores that "[t]he order of argument lies within the sound discretion of the district court." 979 F.2d at 1251. Moreover, plaintiffs rightly point out that Badger has not conceded that it breached the contract at issue, so plaintiffs appear to still bear the ...


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