Indemnification Agreement Was Inadmissible To Show Liability Under FRE 411

In a civil rights action involving a tragic death, the plaintiff sought to admit an indemnification agreement to show which entity had decision making responsibility over medical matters. Seventh Circuit affirmed the exclusion of the agreement under since the primary issue concerned "questions of liability" which is an impermissible purpose under FRE 411, in King v. Kramer, _ F.3d _ (7th Cir. July 10, 2014) (No. 13–2379)

FRE 411 bars evidence "that a person was or was not insured against liability" when offered "to prove whether the person acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully." This rule reflects the policy that knowledge about prior insurance may not be indicative of fault and may allow the jury to decide the case on an "improper" basis. ACN. However, the rule notes that this evidence may be used for another purpose, such as proving a witness’s bias or prejudice or proving agency, ownership, or control." The Seventh Circuit recently considered the admissibility of an indemnification agreement under this rule.

Trial Court Proceedings: Excluding Indemnification Agreement

The civil rights action arose out of the death of John King during his police custody. He was waiting for a probable cause hearing. While he was in custody, the jail medical staff "rapidly tapered off his psychotropic medication. He reported "seizure-like symptoms." He was placed in isolation and later found dead. The administrator of his estate filed the action against the county and officials.

At trial, the plaintiff moved to admit evidence of an indemnification agreement between the County and Health Professionals, Ltd. (HPL) to show "that the County delegated final decision-making authority to HPL" on prisoner medical treatment decisions The trial court excluded the evidence under FRE 411.

Seventh Circuit Review: Affirming Exclusion

The Seventh Circuit agreed with the trial court that the indemnification agreement was not admissible under FRE 411. As the circuit explained, "Because Plaintiff-Appellant’s main argument regarding the admissibility of the indemnification agreement goes to questions of liability, the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the agreement." King, _ F.3d at _ (citing King v. Harrington, 447 F.3d 531, 533 (7th Cir. 2006) (noting when the “paramount question before the jury [i]s one of negligence, evidence of [liability] insurance” is inadmissible “absent a showing on the part of [the Plaintiff-Appellant] that [she] intended to use the information for some alternate purpose set forth in the second sentence of Rule 411,” such as “proof of agency, ownership, or control, or bias or prejudice of a witness”)).

However, the circuit concluded that a trial court misapplied the Eighth Amendment standard (using a "deliberate indifference standard, instead of the objective reasonableness standard"). Consequently, the case was remanded for a new trial.

Conclusion

The King v. Kramer case demonstrates that the court will consider whether evidence of insurance goes to the primary issue of liability. Because it did in the civil rights case, the indemnity agreement was inadmissible. For more on the King v. Harrington case, see FRE 411 Bars Evidence Of Liability Insurance To Show Wrongful Acts.

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Photo Description: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit at the Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Courthouse in Chicago, Illinois. Learn more about the history of the courthouse.

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