In Diamond Offshore Services Limited, et al. v. Williams, the Texas Supreme Court analyzed whether the trial court erred in excluding surveillance video without first viewing it. The Court held that, despite the extensive deference given to the discretion of the trial court, "the proper exercise of discretion requires the trial court to actually view video evidence before ruling on its admissibility," and that the trial court committed a harmful error when it excluded the video of plaintiff without viewing it first.
In this case, Williams, an employee of Diamond, was injured while working on a heavy piece of equipment and never returned to work. When he sued Diamond for negligence, the company pursued a defense theory that Williams was overstating his pain and downplaying his ability to return to at least some form of work. Diamond obtained a 30-minute surveillance video showing Williams engaging in physical activities, including operating a mini-excavator, bending over to pick up debris, and working on his truck.
Williams objected to the admissibility of the surveillance video, arguing, among other things, that the video was not a fair representation of his disabilities and was unfairly prejudicial under Rule 403 of the Texas Rules of Evidence. The trial court sustained the objection without viewing the video and disallowed Diamond from introducing it as either impeachment or substantive evidence. The jury awarded Williams nearly $10 million in damages, two-thirds of which consisted of "soft damages" such as pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.
The Texas Supreme Court held that to properly assess video evidence under the balancing test of Rule 403, as a general rule, "a trial court should view video evidence before ruling on admissibility when the contents of the video are at issue." The Court also acknowledged the inherent probative value of video evidence due to its ability to provide "a more panoramic representation" than other types of evidence and explained that in personal injury cases, a video can illustrate "better than words, the impact the injury had on the plaintiff's life" and "can also undermine a plaintiff's credibility if it suggests exaggeration or flat-out dishonesty regarding pain or disabilities."
The Court reversed and remanded the case for new trial finding that the trial court's exclusion of the surveillance video of plaintiff without viewing it first was a harmful error and that the video should not have been excluded under Rule 403.
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