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Seventh Circuit Orders New Trial in Defective Ladder Injury Lawsuit – Baugh v. Cuprum SA de CV

By September 20, 2013July 17th, 2019Product Liability

In a defective product lawsuit, it can be helpful to show the jury the product under discussion so they can picture the accident it allegedly caused and the way it was being used. However, careful rules govern how objects are admitted as evidence, in part because admitting something misleading or using it misleadingly can change the outcome of the trial. In Baugh v. Cuprum SA de CV, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for John and Sharon Baugh of Illinois, who were suing over brain injuries to John Baugh after a ladder he was standing on buckled and collapsed. The defense expert for the maker of the ladder, Cuprum, introduced an example ladder as a demonstration without admitting it into evidence. The Seventh Circuit ruled that it was therefore error for the judge to send the ladder to the jury.
John Baugh was cleaning out his rain gutters when the ladder buckled and collapsed. The injury was so severe that he is unable to testify about what happened, and there were no witnesses. Sharon Baugh filed a product liability lawsuit in Illinois against Cuprum. About three months before trial—and two years after discovery ended—Cuprum disclosed that it planned to use an example ladder at trial, marked as “for demonstrative purposes.” Sharon objected, but Cuprum said it was demonstrative only and the judge permitted it on that basis. Because the ladder was demonstrative only, it was not sent to the jury when it started its deliberations. But after about two hours, the jury asked for the ladder, and plaintiff objected that it was supposed to be only demonstrative, and would prejudice them because they had not prepared expert testimony about it. The judge ultimately permitted the ladder to be taken into the jury room, and the jury found for Cuprum.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the Baughs that this was an abuse of discretion requiring a new trial. The general rule is that exhibits not admitted into evidence should not be provided in the jury room during deliberations, it noted. Thus, allowing the ladder to go into the jury room was improper because it created undue influence. Noting some confusion over the definition of “demonstrative,” the Seventh clarified that courts may not send items to the jury that were not admitted into evidence, unless all parties agree. The district court made it clear originally that the ladder was being admitted as a demonstration; both parties were entitled to notice if it was going to be admitted into evidence. Nor was the error harmless, the court said. The plaintiff’s counsel was deceived; both sides had substantial evidence supporting their positions; and the verdict was reached just hours after the jury got access to the ladder. Because the erroneous admission of the ladder could have been decisive, the plaintiffs are entitled to a new trial, the court concluded.
This ruling reiterates a rule that is already largely established, but was not followed by the trial court. The trouble with admitting anything into evidence late, as was effectively done here, is that the parties didn’t have a chance to incorporate that evidence into the case. In this case, the ladder was introduced two years after discovery—the period in a dangerous product lawsuit when the parties exchange evidence for use in the case—was over. Its use as evidence was not contemplated until the last day of jury deliberations, which is far too late for any attorney to build a new strategy around evidence. That’s why it’s good that the Baughs will get a second chance to make their case seeking compensation for John Baugh’s catastrophic injury.

Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients across Missouri and southern Illinois who have suffered serious injuries or lost a loved one because of someone else’s negligence. If you’d like to tell us your story and learn more about your rights, call us today for a free consultation at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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