U.S. District Court Agrees that Stipulated Videotaped Statements — Although Hearsay — Should Have Been Seen by the Jury

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has reversed a decision by a district court judge of the Southern District of Illinois. Reginald Pittman was a pretrial detainee in the Madison County Jail when he hanged himself from the bars of his cell with a blanket. He did not die, but he sustained brain damage that left him in a vegetative state, cared for entirely by his mother without any government benefits.

Pittman had left a suicide note in which he stated that he was killing himself because the guards were not letting him see crisis counselors. His mother brought this lawsuit against Madison County, as well as jail staffers, charging deliberate indifference by guards and other jail staff to the risk of his attempting suicide, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In 2011, the federal district court judge granted summary judgment in favor of all the defendants, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed as to Randy Eaton and Matt Warner, two of the jail’s guards, on the ground that there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether they had been deliberately indifferent to the risk that Pittman would attempt suicide.

The case was then tried by a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of both defendants, prompting an appeal by Pittman’s guardian.

The appellate majority began by stating that the key witness for Pittman was a man named Bradley Banovz who occupied a cell adjacent to Pittman when Pittman hanged himself. He testified at the trial that in the five days preceding Pittman’s suicide attempt, Eaton and Warner had ignored Pittman’s request to see members of the jail’s crisis staff.

Three hours after the suicide attempt, a county detective obtained a 25-minute recording interview with Banovz about the attempt. Pittman’s lawyers attempted to introduce the video at trial. The trial transcript indicated that the defense counsel had stipulated on the second day of the trial that if the plaintiff’s lawyer would put Banovz on the stand to testify, the defense would not object to the admission of that 2007 video statement into evidence.

Yet, as soon as the video began to play at the jury trial, the defendants’ lawyer objected, and the district court judge sustained the objection preventing the presentation of the video to the jury.

The court of appeals majority stated that the judge’s ground for sustaining the objections to showing the video was that the video was hearsay because it recorded a statement that Banovz had made out of court.

The majority, however, noted that the defense lawyer was aware of this fact when he agreed to have the video admitted into evidence. The majority further stated that stipulations are not easily set aside, as specified in Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 36(b), 16(e).

The majority of the court of appeals stated that stipulations are binding unless they create manifest injustice or were made inadvertently or on the basis of legal or factual error. Citing United States v. Mezzanatto, the majority stated that agreements to waive hearsay objections are enforceable.

The majority stated that in determining that the case was a close one, the showing of the video to the jury could have resulted in a verdict for plaintiff and, therefore the error by the district judge was not harmless.  The majority, therefore, reversed the district court’s decision and remanded the case for retrial.

The one judge dissenting stated that the majority’s decision effectively shifted the burden of establishing a foundation for evidence from the party seeking to admit the evidence to the party seeking to exclude the evidence. The dissenting justice also stated that he felt that there was no indication that Banovz’s essentially identical video testimony to his trial testimony would have changed the outcome of the trial. Accordingly, the dissenting justice said that error excluding the video, was harmless error.

Reginald Pittman v. County of Madison, et al., No. 16-3291 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, July 14, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling wrongful death lawsuits, traumatic brain injury cases, medical malpractice lawsuits and car accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Schaumburg, Schiller Park, Tinley Park, Palatine, Palos Heights, Inverness, Deerfield, Kenilworth, Lake Forest, Chicago (Austin, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, Gold Coast, Washington Park), Wilmette, Hillside and Lincolnshire, Ill.

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