Diamond Offshore Servs. Ltd. v. Williams

CourtSupreme Court of Texas
Citation542 S.W.3d 539
Docket NumberNo. 16-0434,16-0434
Parties DIAMOND OFFSHORE SERVICES LIMITED and Diamond Offshore Services Company, Petitioners v. Willie David WILLIAMS, Respondent
Decision Date02 March 2018

542 S.W.3d 539

DIAMOND OFFSHORE SERVICES LIMITED and Diamond Offshore Services Company, Petitioners
Willie David WILLIAMS, Respondent

No. 16-0434

Supreme Court of Texas.

Argued December 7, 2017

Roger W. Hughes, Adams & Graham, L.L.P., Harlingen, TX, for Amicus Curiae Texas Association of Defense Counsel.

Constance H. Pfeiffer, David M. Gunn, Kyle A. Lawrence, Beck Redden LLP, Houston, TX, for Petitioners.

Jeffrey L. Oldham, Bracewell LLP, Houston, Michael Patrick Doyle, Doyle LLP, Houston, TX, Walter Z. Steinman, Law Offices of Walter Z. Steinman, Wyncote PA, for Respondent.

Justice Guzman delivered the opinion of the Court.

542 S.W.3d 542

We live in a highly visual age. Image-capture technology is not only easily accessible, it is virtually omnipresent. Video recordings from security and traffic cameras, dash-cams, television footage, surveillance, and self-recordings have long been a quotidian part of modern life, and with the advent of smartphone camera technology, seemingly everyone has a video recorder at the ready. Unsurprisingly, images captured for myriad purposes, and in various forms, regularly work their way into the courtroom. For decades, trial courts have encountered evidentiary issues related to video evidence and, as video technology continues to become more portable and affordable, will increasingly do so.

If, as it is often said, a picture is worth a thousand words,1 then a video is worth exponentially more. Images have tremendous power to persuade, both in showing the truth and distorting it. A video can be the single most compelling piece of evidence in a case, captivating the jury’s attention like no other evidence could.2 Video can often convey what an oral description cannot—demeanor, personality, expressions, and motion, to name a few.3 Because video evidence can be highly persuasive, when objected to, the trial court must carefully evaluate the factors in Texas Rule of Evidence 403, which requires balancing the probative value of the evidence against concerns such as unfair prejudice, the potential to mislead the jury, and needless presentation of cumulative evidence. Rule 403 favors admission by requiring these countervailing concerns to substantially outweigh the evidence’s probative value before it may be excluded.4

In this personal-injury suit arising from a workplace accident, the employer, believing the employee to be exaggerating the extent of his pain and physical limitations, hired an investigator who conducted surveillance and recorded the employee engaging in physical activities over the course of two days. After much discussion about the video—but without watching it—the trial court excluded the evidence. The employee ultimately prevailed, with the jury assessing nearly $10 million in damages, including almost $4 million for pain and suffering.

The primary issue we address today is whether the trial court erred in excluding the surveillance video without first viewing it. We hold that, except in rare circumstances not present here, when the admissibility of a video is at issue, the proper exercise of discretion requires the trial court to actually view video evidence before ruling on its admissibility. While trial courts have discretion in making evidentiary rulings, we cannot defer to discretion that was not actually exercised. The video here should not have been excluded, and its exclusion was harmful because it went to the heart of the defendant’s case. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial.

I. Background

Diamond Offshore Services Limited and Diamond Offshore Services Company (collectively

542 S.W.3d 543

Diamond) employed Willie David Williams as a senior mechanic on its offshore drilling rig. In January 2008, while working alone on a large, heavy piece of equipment, Williams hurt his back. He never returned to work. Despite two back surgeries in the thirteen months following his injury, Williams continues to suffer back pain and related neurological issues with his foot and toes. Due to these issues and associated physical restrictions, Williams’s treating physician declared him "totally disabled at this point."

In May 2011, Williams sued Diamond under the Jones Act, alleging Diamond was negligent and the drilling rig was an unseaworthy vessel. Shortly after filing suit, Williams underwent a functional capacity evaluation (FCE) to assess his physical abilities. The FCE detailed various physical restrictions and determined Williams could perform medium-level physical labor within those restrictions. As part of the FCE, Williams completed a pain questionnaire, and his responses were "consistent" with patients who are "exaggerating their symptoms." The FCE thus concluded: "This score is not consistent with what the client was able to do during the FCE. The client’s perception of [his] abilities is less than what he is capable of doing."

Based on this information, Diamond pursued a defensive theory that Williams was overstating his pain and downplaying his ability to return to some form of work. To support that theory, Diamond had Williams surveilled and recorded. In December 2012—seventeen months after the FCE and nearly four years after Williams’s second surgery—an investigator recorded him for about an hour over two consecutive days while he was engaged in limited physical activities. Prominent date-and-time stamps appear on all recorded segments.

On one day, the investigator videotaped Williams during a twenty-seven minute time period, which included a break in recording of less than one minute. During that time, Williams operated a mini-excavator to clear away a run-down mobile home. He also bent over thirty-four times in a consecutive four-minute span to pick up smaller debris from the ground and throw it into a trailer bed. The next day, the investigator filmed Williams working on his lifted truck over a thirty-two-minute period, during which the investigator stopped and started recording several times, generating about twenty-eight minutes of total video footage. Williams was perched on a stool for much of the time, but periodically stood up to gather tools and materials. At one point, Williams used his body to maneuver a large "monster wheel" onto his truck.

At trial nine months later, Williams testified he still had "constant pain" in his back and was unable to hold any sort of job because of his pain, physical restrictions, and daily pain medication. His treating physician and other experts supported this assessment, disagreeing with the FCE’s work-capacity conclusions and discounting it as outdated because Williams’s condition had worsened in the intervening two years. Williams explained he would attempt to do activities he enjoyed, such as working on his vehicle and using the mini-excavator, but he could not engage in those activities for as long as he could before his injuries, and he hurts when he tries, both during and after. Several of Williams’s friends and family members described their observations of the mental and physical toll of his injury and pain and expressed concern that, based on their perception of his deterioration rate, Williams would be immobile or wheelchair-bound within a few years.

542 S.W.3d 544

Diamond offered the surveillance video at trial to counter this evidence and corroborate the FCE. Williams objected, contending impeachment would be improper because Williams admitted he could engage in the activities portrayed, just not for an extended time period and not without pain. He also argued the video was not "a fair representation of his disabilities or abilities" because "[i]t shows nothing of his life inside his home, the copious amounts of pain medication he must take to be able to perform these activities, or the price he has paid through the pain suffered in the subsequent hours and days" and thus should be excluded under Rule 403 as unfairly prejudicial and misleading.

The trial judge first considered admissibility at a motion in limine hearing and, after stating she had not watched the video, ruled Diamond could hold the video in its "reserve bank for impeachment, and that’s it" and if Williams "opens the door, then we'll take a look at it." She did not otherwise state a basis for her ruling. At trial, Diamond offered the video on three separate occasions, both for impeachment and as substantive evidence regarding Williams’s pain and physical abilities.5 Each time, the trial judge stood by her prior ruling after only a brief exchange with counsel.

The jury returned a verdict for Williams, finding nearly $10 million in lost earning capacity, medical expenses, pain and suffering, disfigurement, and physical impairment. In a split decision, the court of appeals affirmed, determining the trial court had not abused its discretion in excluding the video.6 The dissent would have reversed and remanded for a new trial, concluding that excluding the surveillance footage, which "goes to the heart of each of Williams'[s] damages questions," was harmful error.7

II. Discussion

A. The Trial Court Abused its Discretion in Ruling Without First Watching the Video

The Texas Rules of Evidence provide for the general admissibility of...

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