Diamond Offshore Services Ltd. v. Williams—Courts Must View Video Evidence Before Ruling on Issues of Admissibility

Introduction

In Diamond Offshore Services Ltd. v. Williams, an employee sued his employer for injuries arising from a workplace accident.[1]  The employee ultimately prevailed and the jury awarded “$10 million in damages, including almost $4 million for pain and suffering.”[2]  The issue before the Texas Supreme Court was whether the Trial Court erred in excluding video surveillance of Plaintiff conducted by Defendant without first viewing the video.[3]  Plaintiff argued the video should be excluded under Texas Rule of Evidence 403, as the video was “unfairly prejudicial and misleading.”[4]  Without ever providing the reasoning behind her decision, the Trial Court Judge excluded the video from use at trial.[5]

Factual Background

The Plaintiff, Willie David Williams, was a senior mechanic on Diamond Offshore Services (“Diamond”) offshore drilling rig.[6]  Williams was injured while working alone on the rig, never returned to work, and had three subsequent back surgeries.[7]  Williams’ physician declared him “totally disabled.”[8]  Williams filed suit against his employer, Diamond, alleging negligence and that the rig was an unseaworthy vessel.[9]  Diamond, believing Williams was “exaggerating the extent of his pain and physical limitations,” conducted video surveillance of Williams.[10]  Over the course of the surveillance, Diamond’s investigator filmed Williams operating a mini-excavator at his home, bending down and standing up thirty-four (34) times in four (4) minutes, working on his lifted truck, and “using his body to maneuver a ‘monster wheel’ onto his truck.”[11]

At trial, Williams insisted he was still in constant pain, could not work, and could not perform daily activities he enjoyed, such as working on his truck and using the mini-excavator.[12]  Diamond attempted to offer the surveillance video to counter the evidence offered by Williams, but Williams objected.  Williams argued the video “was not ‘a fair representation of his disabilities or abilities’” because it was effectively a mere snapshot of his life, and should be excluded under Rule 403 of the Texas Rules of Evidence as unfairly prejudicial and misleading.[13]  Without ever viewing the video, the Trial Court completely excluded it, and, in a split decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.[14]

Texas Rule of Evidence 403 & Appellate Standard of Review

Rule 403 of the Texas Rules of Evidence states: “[t]he court may 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, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.”[15]  Once evidence meets the threshold requirement of relevance, the court must weigh the probative value of the evidence against the danger of unfair prejudice.[16]  The evidence may then be excluded if the probative value is substantially outweighed by the unfair prejudice to the party against whom it is offered.[17]

Courts review an exclusion of evidence under Rule 403 under an abuse of discretion standard.[18]  The appellate court may presume the trial court performed the balancing test, and the test need not be announced for the record.[19]  For the trial court to be reversed on appeal, the appellant essentially must prove the balancing test was not performed.[20]

The Court’s Holding

In this case, the record was “neither silent nor ambiguous,” it was clear the trial court judge did not view the video.[21]  Without viewing the surveillance video, the trial court could not perform the requisite balancing test under Rule 403.[22]  Thus, the Texas Supreme Court held the trial court “could not properly exercise its discretion without watching the video.”[23]  In so holding, the Texas Supreme Court announced a new general rule applicable to all trial courts.[24]  “[A] trial court should view video evidence before ruling on admissibility when the contents of the video are at issue.”[25]  There are very few exceptions to this rule, and this case “does not justify an exception.”[26]  The Court went on to perform the Rule 403 balancing test and held the video should not have been excluded under Rule 403 and the exclusion was harmful error.[27]  The case was subsequently reversed and remanded for a new trial.[28]

Conclusion

This case establishes a bright line rule—if a trial court excludes video evidence without first viewing the video, the court has abused its discretion.  The remainder of the decision contains extensive discussion of the importance of video evidence, such as surveillance video in a personal injury case.  The Texas Supreme Court predicts, “as video technology continues to become more portable and affordable” the courts will increasingly be required to rule on evidentiary issues related to video evidence.[29]  Diamond Offshore Services, Ltd. sets a strong precedent for such evidentiary issues and the importance of video evidence.


[1] Diamond Offshore Services Ltd. v. Williams, No. 16-0434, 2018 WL 1122368, at *2 (Tex. March 2, 2018).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at *5.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at *3.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. (quotation marks omitted).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at *2.

[11] Id. at *4.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at *5.

[14] Id. at *6.

[15] Tex. R. Evid. 403.

[16] See Republic Waste Services, Ltd. v. Martinez, 335 S.W.3d 401, 408 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, no pet.).

[17] Id.

[18] Mayhew v. Dealey, 143 S.W.3d 356, 370 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2004, pet. denied).

[19] Horizon/CMS Healthcare Corp. v. Auld, 985 S.W.2d 216, 226 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 1999), aff'd in part and rev'd in part on other grounds, 34 S.W.3d 887 (Tex. 2000).

[20] Mayhew, 143 S.W.3d at 370.

[21] Diamond Offshore Services Ltd., 2018 WL 1122368, at *7.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at *11.

[24] Id. at *9.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. (exceptions include when probative value is so minimal it obviously does not outweigh potential prejudice, video depositions generally need not be viewed before ruling, exigencies of trial and lengthy videos).

[27] Id. at *19.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. at *1.

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