Chrysler Grp. LLC v. Walden, S17G0832

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Citation812 S.E.2d 244
Docket NumberS17G0832
Decision Date15 March 2018

303 Ga. 358
812 S.E.2d 244

WALDEN et al.


Supreme Court of Georgia.

Decided: March 15, 2018

812 S.E.2d 246

Terry Otho Brantley, Mary Diane Owens, Bradley S. Wolff, Swift, Currie, Mcghee & Hiers, LLP, 1355 Peachtree Street, N.E. Suite 300, Atlanta, Georgia 30309-3238, Bruce Wheat Kirbo, Kirbo & Kendrick, P. O. Box 425, Bainbridge, Georgia 39818, Thomas H. Dupree, Rajiv Mohan, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, 1050 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20036, for Appellant.

Karsten Bicknese, Robert Howard Betts, Seacrest, Karesh, Tate & Bicknese, LLP, 56 Perimeter Center East, Suite 450, Atlanta, Georgia 30346, James E. Butler, Leigh Martin May, David Thomas Rohwedder, Butler, Wooten Cheely & Peak LLP, 2719 Buford Highway, Atlanta, Georgia 30324, James Edward Butler, Butler Tobin LLC, 1932 N. Druid Hills Rd, N.E. Suite 250, Atlanta, Georgia 30319, Cathy Cox, Mercer Law School, 1021 Georgia Avenue, Macon, Georgia 31207, George C. Floyd, Floyd & Kendrick, LLC, P. O. Box 1026, Bainbridge, Georgia 39818, Michael Brian Terry, Frank Mitchell Lowrey, Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, LLP, 1201 West Peachtree Street, N.W., Suite 3900, Atlanta, Georgia 30309-3417, for Appellee.

Ashby K. Fox, Forrest S. Latta, Louis G. Fiorilla, Burr & Forman LLP, 171 17th Street, N.W. Suite 1100, Atlanta, Georgia 30363, D. Victor Reynolds, John Stuart Melvin, Michael Scott Carlson, John Richard Edwards, Amelia Greeson Pray, Cobb County District Attorney's Office, 70 Haynes Street, Marietta, Georgia 30090, for Neutral Amicus.

Michael Roger Boorman, Huff, Powell & Bailey, LLC, 999 Peachtree Street NE Suite 950, Atlanta, Georgia 30309, Brian David Boone, Alston & Bird LLP, Bank of America Plaza 101 South, Tryon Street, Charlotte, North Carolina 28280, Kyle G.A. Wallace, Caroline M. Rawls, William Herman Jordan, Alston & Bird, LLP, 1201 W. Peachtree Street, Atlanta, Georgia 30309, Christopher Randall Jordan, Hunter MaClean Exley & Dunn, 777 Gloucester St Suite 400, Brunswick, Georgia 31520, Martin Adam Levinson, Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young LLP, 303 Peachtree Street, N.E., Suite 4000, Atlanta, Georgia 30308, Garret Warrington Meader, Drew Eckl & Farnham LLP, 777 Gloucester Street Suite 305, Brunswick, Georgia 31520, James Randolph Evans, Anthony Wyatt Morris, Dentons US LLP, 303 Peachtree Street NE Suite 5300, Atlanta, Georgia 30308, for Amicus Appellant.

Matthew Britt Stoddard, The Stoddard Firm, 5447 Roswell Road Suite 204, Atlanta, Georgia 30342, for Amicus Appellee.

Therese S. Barnes, Georgia Supreme Court, 244 Washington Street Room 572, Atlanta, Georgia 30334, for Other Party.

Grant, Justice.

812 S.E.2d 247

We suspect that bench and bar have become accustomed to hearing the familiar recitation from this Court that Georgia’s "new" Evidence Code has changed the rules. Although the new Evidence Code became law in January of 2013, meaning that it is not so very new in its application, cases can take some time to make their way to this Court on appeal. Accordingly, we still have work to do in interpreting the new Code, and this case gives us that opportunity. We hold today not that compensation evidence is always admissible to show the bias of an employee witness, or that it is never admissible, but that such evidence is subject to the Rule 403 analysis weighing the evidence’s unfair prejudice against its probative value. Because Chrysler did not raise a Rule 403 objection to the compensation evidence at issue in this appeal, we consider the question not under the ordinary abuse-of-discretion standard, but as a question of plain error. We conclude that under the particular circumstances of this case—where the jury’s evaluation of the bias and credibility of Chrysler’s CEO were central to the allegations in the case because the CEO was alleged to have specifically interjected himself in a federal safety investigation to the detriment of the plaintiffs—we cannot say that the prejudicial effect of the evidence so far outweighed its probative value that its admission was clear and obvious reversible error. Accordingly, although we disagree with the rationale of the Court of Appeals, we ultimately affirm its judgment.


Construed to support the jury’s verdict, see Citizens & Southern Nat. Bank , 254 Ga. 131, 136, 327 S.E.2d 192 (1985), the evidence shows that on March 6, 2012, Bryan Harrell was driving his pickup truck at more than 50 miles per hour when he rear-ended the 1999 Jeep in which four-year-old Remington Walden was a rear-seat passenger, with his aunt behind the wheel. The impact left Harrell and Remington’s aunt unhurt, but fractured Remington’s femur. The impact also caused the Jeep’s rear-mounted gas tank to rupture and catch fire. Remington burned to death trying to escape; he lived for up to a minute as he burned, and witnesses heard him screaming. Remington’s parents ("Appellees") sued both Chrysler and Harrell for wrongful death.1

At trial, in March and April of 2015, Appellees challenged the Jeep’s vehicle design, arguing that Chrysler should not have used a rear-mounted fuel tank. To avoid the operation of Georgia’s ten-year statute of repose, Appellees were required to show not just that the gas tank was dangerous, but that Chrysler had acted with "willful, reckless, or wanton disregard for life or property." OCGA § 51-1-11. Evidence showed that Chrysler had long known that mounting a gas tank behind the rear axle was dangerous. Evidence also showed that Chrysler’s placement of the gas tank behind the rear axle was contrary to industry trends, which favored placing tanks in front of the rear axle. In 2009, the federal Office of Defects Investigation

812 S.E.2d 248

("ODI"), a division of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA"), had launched an engineering investigation and recommended a recall of several Jeep models with rear gas tanks, including the model at issue in this case. Appellees emphasized that after Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne met with two political appointees heading NHTSA and the Department of Transportation ("DOT"), the model of Jeep at issue in this case was excluded from the recall.

Chrysler, on the other hand, presented evidence that the vehicle met or exceeded all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and that many other vehicles of the era used rear-mounted fuel tanks. Marchionne testified, and denied any inappropriate political influence; he stressed that the NHTSA investigation of the alleged defect ultimately resulted in a conclusion that Chrysler’s design did not pose an unreasonable risk to safety. Appellee’s counsel pressed him to admit that he had persuaded NHTSA to resolve its investigation without finding a defect in order to avoid a drop in car sales, but Marchionne refused.

When questioning Chrysler Chief Operating Officer Mark Chernoby at trial, Appellees’ counsel asked about CEO Marchionne’s salary, bonus, and benefits; Marchionne himself was never questioned about his income and benefits. Chernoby detailed Marchionne’s annual pay, stock options, and cash awards, which together totaled over $68 million. The trial court overruled Chrysler’s repeated relevance and wealth-of-a-party objections to this line of questioning. Evidence was also admitted, this time without objection, to the fact that had Remington survived to adulthood he "could even have been the chairman and CEO of a global automaker." Appellees’ counsel referenced Marchionne’s compensation again in closing, arguing, "what [Chrysler’s counsel] said Remi’s life was worth, Marchionne made 43 times as much in one year.... We ask you to return a verdict for the full value of Remington’s life of at least $120 million.... That’s less than two years of what Mr. Marchionne made just last year."

The jury determined that Chrysler acted with a reckless or wanton disregard for human life and failed to warn of the hazard that killed Remington. In returning its award of $120 million in wrongful death damages and $30 million in pain and suffering damages, the jury found Chrysler 99 percent at fault and Harrell 1 percent at fault. The trial court reduced these damages to $30 million and $10 million respectively when it denied Chrysler’s motion for a new trial.

In its opinion affirming the trial court’s order, the Court of Appeals approved the admission of Marchionne’s compensation evidence, stating that "evidence of a witness’s relationship to a party is always admissible" and that Marchionne’s compensation "made the existence of [Marchionne’s] bias in favor of Chrysler more probable." Chrysler Group, LLC v. Walden , 339 Ga. App. 733, 743, 792 S.E.2d 754 (2016). The Court of Appeals also rejected Chrysler’s argument that the trial court had committed legal error by not comparing damage awards in prior similar cases, on the grounds that "no two cases are exactly alike." Id. at 750, 792 S.E.2d 754. This Court thereafter granted Chrysler’s petition for certiorari, posing two questions: (1) Whether the Court of Appeals erred in determining that evidence of Chrysler’s CEO’s compensation was always admissible to show party bias under OCGA § 24-6-622 ? See also OCGA § 24-4-403 ; and (2) Whether the Court of Appeals erred in failing to consider prior awards in similar cases to determine whether the remitted award of damages was excessive...

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34 cases
  • Wilson v. State
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • June 21, 2021
    ...admissible. State v. Orr , 305 Ga. 729, 742 (3) (b), 827 S.E.2d 892 (2019) (citing Chrysler Group v. Walden , 303 Ga. 358, 363 (II) (A), 812 S.E.2d 244 (2018) ). And the Court of Appeals, relying on decisions of the Eleventh Circuit, has held that Rule 403 is part of the overall admissibili......
  • Wilson v. State
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • June 21, 2021
    ...admissible. State v. Orr , 305 Ga. 729, 742 (3) (b), 827 S.E.2d 892 (2019) (citing Chrysler Group v. Walden , 303 Ga. 358, 363 (II) (A), 812 S.E.2d 244 (2018) ). And the Court of Appeals, relying on decisions of the Eleventh Circuit, has held that Rule 403 is part of the overall admissibili......
  • Kirby v. State, S18A0936
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • September 24, 2018
    ...For that reason, I concur in the judgment only as to Divisions 3 and 4. See Chrysler Group, LLC v. Walden, 303 Ga. 358, 372-373, 812 S.E.2d 244 (2018) (Peterson, J., concurring specially in part).--------Notes:1 The murder occurred on April 29, 2002. On August 17, 2015, an Emanuel County gr......
  • Johnson v. State
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
    • February 19, 2019
    ...that are prejudicial, irrelevant , or otherwise improper" (emphasis supplied)); Chrysler Grp., LLC v. Walden , 303 Ga. 358, 365 (II) (A), 812 S.E.2d 244 (2018) (reiterating our Supreme Court’s precedent, holding that irrelevant evidence should be excluded); Hodo v. State , 272 Ga. 272, 274-......
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