Pitfalls of Filing Improvident Motions in Limine

Motions in limine can be a powerful tool in the hands of trial lawyers, strategically used to eliminate unnecessary distractions and prevent the introduction of inadmissible evidence. However, when these motions are filed carelessly or without proper consideration, they can prove detrimental to a client’s case. In this article, we will delve into the potential pitfalls associated with improvidently filed motions in limine, shedding light on the preservation issues that can arise from such actions.

The Purpose and Benefits of Motions in Limine

Motions in limine are typically filed with the intention of excluding improper evidence that may unfairly prejudice the jury. By successfully utilizing these motions, attorneys can ensure that the jury is shielded from inadmissible evidence, sparing them from unnecessary objections that may arouse suspicion or create additional prejudice. The impact of a well-executed motion in limine can even extend beyond the trial itself, leading to more favorable pretrial negotiation terms.

The Importance of Careful Drafting

A critical aspect of motions in limine is the careful drafting of these documents. It is crucial to specify precisely which evidence should be excluded and provide clear and convincing reasons for why the mention of such evidence would be unduly prejudicial. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to come across motions in limine that seek to exclude vast categories of evidence without sufficient justification. These broad and indiscriminate motions, often included as part of a massive “omnibus” motion, are generally disfavored and should be avoided.

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Annoyance to Trial Judges and Potential Consequences

Not only do these overly broad motions waste valuable time and resources, but they also tend to irritate trial judges. Dumping an extensive list of motions in limine on a judge can detract attention from critical issues, hindering effective communication. Judges expect attorneys to be judicious in their motions, focusing on the matters that genuinely matter to the case. Excessive and frivolous motions can even lead to severe repercussions, such as judicial sanctions or a complete denial of all motions in limine.

Disfavor of Generic Motions

Motion in limine filings that attempt to preclude the opposing party from generally violating rules of evidence or acting unprofessionally are also frowned upon. Courts generally disfavor these motions, often opting for tersely worded responses that emphasize the professional conduct expected from all parties. Such generic motions may inadvertently draw attention to evidence or arguments that the opposing party may not have considered before, potentially undermining the element of surprise in trial proceedings.

Tailoring Motions to Suit the Case

Tailoring motions in limine to the specific needs of the case is of utmost importance. While surprising the opposing party with an objection at trial may not be a significant concern in pattern litigation or cases with extensive discovery, this potential danger cannot be disregarded. Customizing motions to address the unique circumstances of the case is crucial, especially when facing an experienced opponent or entering trial without extensive pretrial activity.

Avoiding Unnoticed Motions for Summary Judgment

One potential pitfall is filing a motion in limine that effectively serves as an unnoticed motion for summary judgment. If a motion in limine disposes of a significant element of a party’s claim or defense, granting the motion can be harmful error if it does not comply with the timing provision and standards prescribed for summary judgment motions. Attorneys should carefully evaluate the practical implications of their motions and ensure compliance with the appropriate rules when necessary.

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Preservation of the Record and Definitive Rulings

Filing a motion in limine can sometimes lead to complacency regarding the preservation of the record. When a motion to exclude evidence is denied, the rules generally consider a “definitive ruling” on the motion in limine as sufficient to preserve the issue for appeal. However, the precise definition of a “definitive ruling” can be somewhat ambiguous, making it vital for counsel to either seek a clear ruling from the judge or renew the objection during trial. When in doubt, it is advisable to err on the side of caution and renew the objection.

Adapting to Changing Circumstances

Motions in limine are made based on the expected evidence at trial, which means they are subject to change as the case unfolds. If the evidence presented at trial differs from the original representations, it is crucial to bring this matter to the court’s attention and seek reconsideration of the ruling. Even a definitive ruling on one ground does not preserve error related to other bases for excluding evidence, so it is essential to raise objections based on new grounds if they become apparent during the trial.

Proffering Evidence and Flexibility

When a motion in limine is granted against an attorney, it is essential to proffer the evidence at trial as fully as possible. Judges may reconsider their initial ruling in light of the content of the proffer, particularly if they had based their decision on a party’s description of the testimony without hearing from the witness directly. Proffering evidence can be done in various ways, such as filing deposition testimony, presenting an expert’s report, or providing a narrative of the witness’s expected testimony. Remaining vigilant for any evidence presented by the opposing party that may “open the door” to previously excluded evidence is also crucial.

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Dealing with Unfamiliarity and Early Denial

Trial judges who hear motions in limine are often new to the case or unfamiliar with the evidence being discussed. As a result, they may deny motions in limine initially or defer ruling until they have a better understanding of the issues after hearing some evidence during trial. While deferral is not uncommon, the initial denial of a motion in limine can limit opportunities for full reconsideration. Opposing parties may convince the judge that the matter has already been thoroughly considered, making it difficult to revisit the motion later. Having a transcript can help prevent such occurrences, but it is not a guaranteed solution. Despite this, it is still essential to file motions in limine to exclude improper evidence, carefully weighing the risks associated with early denial against the benefits that may arise from a more informed ruling later on.

Conclusion

Motions in limine should not be treated as perfunctory afterthoughts. Instead, they should be approached with strategic consideration and focused intent. Attorneys should prioritize the issues that genuinely matter to their case, avoiding excessive and broad motions that can annoy trial judges and potentially tip off the opposing party. By customizing motions to suit the specifics of the case, preserving objections, and adapting to evolving circumstances, attorneys can navigate the intricate landscape of motions in limine more effectively, ultimately strengthening their clients’ positions in trial proceedings.

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