Noting The Limits To The "Open Door" Doctrine

In examining the use of the “open door” doctrine, Eighth Circuit concludes that the doctrine could not be used to admit an officer’s conclusions about a traffic accident as the testimony did not “clear up” any misimpression created by his prior testimony; circuit also notes the limitations to using the "open door" doctrine, in Valadez v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., _ F.3d _ (8th Cir. July 11, 2014) (No. 12–3679)

The “open door” doctrine is a useful rule which allows evidence to clarify prior inadmissible evidence and avoid any unfair prejudice from the unexplained evidence. See, e.g., Valadez, _ F.3d at _ (citing United States v. Midkiff, 614 F.3d 431, 442 (8th Cir. 2010) (“’The doctrine of opening the door allows a party to explore otherwise inadmissible evidence on cross-examination when the opposing party has made unfair prejudicial use of related evidence on direct examination.’”) (quoting United States v. Durham, 868 F.2d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 1989))). A recent Eighth Circuit case highlighted some important limits to the doctrine.

Trial Court Proceedings: Whether The Plaintiff “Opened The Door” To The Officer’s Accident Report Conclusions And Opinion

Plaintiff Valadez brought a personal injury diversity action concerning lower back injuries he suffered in a traffic accident after the van he was driving was hit by a truck driven by Dennis Watts. The truck was owned by Watkins Motor Lines, Inc. At trial, Valadez sought to introduce the opinions and conclusion of the investigating officer as reflected in the accident report the officer had prepared. The trial court excluded the report.

In trying to impeach the trial testimony of defendant Watts, plaintiff’s counsel asked a sergeant who reviewed the report “whether there were any statements in the accident report suggesting Valadez was stopped on the highway.” The sergeant responded this matter was not mentioned in the report. In follow-up questions, the sergeant noted that if the van had been stopped, “the investigating officer will check the ‘improperly stopped on the highway’ box ‘if the officer can prove that [the vehicle] was stopped’.” The defense then claimed that this line of questioned “opened the door to asking about the investigating officer’s opinions and conclusions on cross-examination.” The trial court agreed and allowed the defense to ask about other boxes that had been checked on the accident report, including “Vehicle defects” and “Improper lane use or change” but did not check the box for “Probable Contributing Circumstances” concerning “the Watkins Motor Lines vehicle and Mr. Watts[’] operation.” The jury concluded there was no fault by either party. Valadez appealed the admission of evidence concerning portions of the accident report.

Eighth Circuit Review: The Limits To The “Opened Door” Doctrine

The Eighth Circuit concluded that the trial court erred in allowing the defense questions about the officer’s conclusions and opinions in the accident report. This testimony was inadmissible and not allowed under the “open door” doctrine.

There was no challenge on appeal to the trial court’s pretrial ruling to exclude the accident report. The circuit therefore “accept[ed] the district court’s conclusion that the accident report was inadmissible hearsay.” Valadez, _ F.3d at _.

The initial questioning by plaintiff’s counsel did not elicit inadmissible hearsay because it was focused on impeachment and the statement was not offered for the truth of the matter asserted. The objective was to highlight an inconsistency between the trial testimony of defendant Watts and what he told the officer following the accident.

The defense questioning could not be justified under the “open door” doctrine. The testimony “did not ‘clear up’ any potential misimpression” by the initial questions. As the circuit noted:

The remedy for improper evidence is not always additional improper evidence. The doctrine of opening the door is more limited than that. Evidence allowed through the open door “must rebut something that had been elicited.” [United States v. ] Finch, 16 F.3d [228,] 233 [(8th Cir. 1994)]. The rebuttal evidence offered to cure the error must be commensurate with the magnitude of the error itself, or the extent to which the door was opened. Otherwise, courts risk subverting the doctrine of opening the door “into a rule for injection of prejudice.’” [United States v. ] Brumfield, 686 F.3d [960,] 964 [(8th Cir. 2012)] (quoting [United States v. ] Durham, 868 F.2d [1010,] 1012 [(8th Cir. 1989)]. Quite simply, a minor mistake by one party does not give permission to an opposing party to admit any and all otherwise inadmissible evidence that it so desires. Here, [defense counsel] Mr. Swift’s questions went too far—moving beyond remedying an implication that no other boxes were checked. But that is not to say that Watts and Watkins were without a remedy.

Valadez, _ F.3d at _.

The circuit noted an avenue to address the scope of the initial testimony was provided under FRE 105 (“If the court admits evidence that is admissible against a party or for a purpose—but not against another party or for another purpose—the court, on timely request, must restrict the evidence to its proper scope and instruct the jury accordingly.”). Under a proper limiting instruction, the jury would have been told that the sergeant’s testimony “was admissible only for purposes of impeachment and was not to be considered as substantive evidence of fault.” Valadez, _ F.3d at _.

The testimony was improper because it allowed the officer’s opinions concerning “an ultimate conclusion” which the circuit had “cautioned ‘merely tells the jury what result to reach” and is therefore “not sufficiently helpful to the trier of fact to be admissible.’” Valadez, _ F.3d at _ (citing Kostelecky v. NL Acme Tool/NL Industries, Inc., 837 F.2d 828, 830 (8th Cir. 1988) (citing Hogan v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., 812 F.2d 409, 411 (8th Cir. 1987)). The circuit concluded the judgment had to be reversed and the case remanded since the “introduction of the investigating officer’s opinions and conclusions by Mr. Swift was improper and had a substantial influence on the jury’s verdict.” Valadez, _ F.3d at _.

Conclusion

The Valadez case provides a recent discussion on the limits to the “open door” doctrine. Consider other posts reviewing application of the doctrine in the Federal Evidence Blog.

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