Considering Videotape Evidence On Summary Judgment

Sixth Circuit majority notes that videotape evidence may be considered on summary judgment in a civil rights excessive force action case; expert opinion based on the videotape evidence could also be considered; dissent concludes summary judgment was not warranted based on the same videotape evidence, in Griffin v. Hardrick, 604 F.3d 949 (6th Cir. May 13, 2010) (No. 09-5757)

The Sixth Circuit recently reviewed the issue whether videotape evidence could be considered on summary judgment. The majority and dissent agreed that the district court could but disagreed whether the video evidence supported summary judgment.

In the case, plaintiff Griffin was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. After she was incarcerated, two corrections officers responded to a disturbance involving Griffin and a nurse. When Griffin failed to comply with the officers’ directions, one officer performed a “leg-sweep maneuver” in order to handcuff Griffin. During the maneuver, a second officer “accidentally landed on one of Griffin’s legs, breaking Griffin’s tibia.” A security camera captured the incident on videotape. Griffin filed an excessive force civil rights claim, along with a state law battery claim. The district court reviewed the video and concluded “that no reasonable jury could find that [officer] Hardrick had intended the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain when he tripped Griffin.” On appeal, Griffin claimed the district court erred in considering the videotape on summary judgment.

An Eighth Circuit majority affirmed the grant of summary judgment, and noted the videotape evidence was appropriately considered:

As an initial matter, Griffin argues that the district court erred in considering the videotape when ruling on Hardrick’s motion for summary judgment. The Supreme Court, however, has held that a court may properly consider videotape evidence at the summary judgment stage. ‘When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.’ Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (holding that, based on videotape evidence, a police officer did not use excessive force in ramming a fleeing suspect’s car). Moreover, the reasonableness of a defendant’s actions is an appropriate matter to determine on summary judgment. Dunn v. Matatall, 549 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir. 2008) (explaining that Scott “instructs us to determine as a matter of law whether the events depicted on [a] video, taken in the light most favorable to [the nonmoving party], show that the Officers’ conduct was objectively reasonable”). The district court thus properly considered the videotape evidence in determining whether Hardrick’s actions were wanton.

Griffin, 604 F.3d at 954.

The plaintiff also claimed that expert opinion “that the leg-sweep maneuver was proper under the circumstances” was improper since it was based on a review of the security video. The majority dismissed this contention:

But as discussed above, a court may properly consider videotape evidence at the summary-judgment stage, Scott, 550 U.S. at 380-81, so an expert opinion based on such evidence is appropriate, see Fed. R. Evid. 702; Brainard v. Am. Skandia Life Assurance Corp., 432 F.3d 655, 663 (6th Cir. 2005) (holding that an expert opinion is permitted at the summary judgment stage so long as the opinion is not “a conclusory assertion about ultimate legal issues” (citation omitted)).

Griffin, 604 F.3d at 955. The majority affirmed the grant of summary judgment.

Circuit Judge White dissented based on the conclusions that could be drawn from the videotape evidence. As Judge White explained:

I agree that it is appropriate for the court to consider a video of the events when ruling on a motion for summary judgment, and to discount any allegations clearly rebutted by the video. I do not, however, agree that the video in this case clearly undermines Griffin’s account leaving no genuine issue of material fact. I would reverse and remand for further proceedings.

Griffin, 604 F.3d at 957.

Supreme Court Scott Opinion

Since the Sixth Circuit majority cited to the Scott opinion for the proposition that a court may consider a videotape on summary judgment, it is useful to review that decision briefly. The Scott case presented the issue:

We consider whether a law enforcement official can, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, attempt to stop a fleeing motorist from continuing his public-endangering flight by ramming the motorist’s car from behind. Put another way: Can an officer take actions that place a fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death in order to stop the motorist’s flight from endangering the lives of innocent bystanders?

Scott, 550 U.S. at 374. The fleeing motorist, who became a quadriplegic as a result of the accident, filed a civil rights action alleging use of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the officer’s motion for summary judgment based on a claim of qualified immunity, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. In addressing the issue presented, the Supreme Court reviewed a videotape of the high speed chase in the case:

There are no allegations or indications that this videotape was doctored or altered in any way, nor any contention that what it depicts differs from what actually happened. The videotape quite clearly contradicts the version of the story told by respondent and adopted by the Court of Appeals.

Scott, 550 U.S. at 378 (footnote omitted). The majority concluded that the videotape was inconsistent with the facts presented by the respondent:
“Respondent’s version of events is so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him. The Court of Appeals should not have relied on such visible fiction; it should have viewed the facts in the light depicted by the videotape.”

Scott, 550 U.S. at 381-82. The majority opinion provided a link to the nearly sixteen-minute video which was made available on the Court’s site. See Scott, 550 U.S. at 378 n.5 (police car contact and crash occurs at about 14:10 minutes in the high-speed chase, “ We are happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself. See Record 36, Exh. A, available at http:// www. supremecourtus. gov/ opinions/ video/ scott_ v_ harris. rmvb and in Clerk of Court’s case file.”). The majority reversed, noting:

The car chase that respondent initiated in this case posed a substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury to others; no reasonable jury could conclude other-wise. Scott’s attempt to terminate the chase by forcing respondent off the road was reasonable, and Scott is entitled to summary judgment. The Court of Appeals’ decision to the contrary is reversed.

Scott, 550 U.S. at 386.

The Griffin case presents an interesting issue on the role of videotape evidence on summary judgment. The majority and dissent reached contrary conclusions in assessing th same videotape. The circumstances may vary on whether videotape evidence should be considered in a particular case. The issue is normally fact-specific. For example, videotape evidence may present only one vantage or viewpoint of the evidence, which may be inconsistent with other perspectives. Ultimately, as with other evidence, the test will be “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986) (quoted in Griffin, 604 F.3d at 953).

Federal Rules of Evidence