Six Flags Am., L.P. v. Mims

Decision Date27 April 2021
Docket NumberNo. 2054,2054
PartiesSIX FLAGS AMERICA, L.P., v. NICHOLAUS MIMS, ET UX
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Circuit Court for Prince George's County

Case No. CAL 18-26682

UNREPORTED

Berger, Shaw Geter, Raker, Irma S. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) JJ.

Opinion by Shaw Geter, J.

*This is an unreported opinion, and it may not be cited in any paper, brief, motion, or other document filed in this Court or any other Maryland Court as either precedent within the rule of stare decisis or as persuasive authority. Md. Rule 1-104.

This is an appeal from a final judgment entered in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County in favor of appellees, Nicholaus Mims, et ux., against appellant, Six Flags America, L.P. A jury found Six Flags liable for injuries sustained by Mims during a security incident at the amusement park. Six Flags timely filed a motion for a new trial/remittitur, which was denied by the court.

Six Flags noted this appeal and presents two questions, which we have slightly rephrased:1

1. Did the trial court err in admitting the response to a request for admission into evidence?
2. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in allowing appellees' counsel to argue in rebuttal that Six Flags made surveillance footage disappear?

For the following reasons, we hold the trial court's admittance of the response to the request for admission was harmless error, but the trial court abused its discretion in allowing appellees' rebuttal arguments regarding the disappearance of surveillance footage.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On June 17, 2018, appellees, Nicholaus Mims ("Mims") and Antionette Love ("Love"), along with Mims' two sons, visited Six Flags amusement park located in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Appellees were in the water park area, known as Hurricane Harbor,when Mims removed his shirt and gave it to Love. At some point, Mims noticed his 12-year-old son was missing and thought that he might be lost. While shirtless, Mims went to look for his son.

After leaving the water park area, Mims was met on two occasions by Six Flags security concerning his state of undress. Six Flags enforces a written and posted policy that prohibits invitees from being shirtless in the park unless invitees are in the designated water park area. On both occasions, he was advised of the shirt policy and on the second occasion, Mims responded loudly. He was then ordered to leave the park and security reinforcement arrived to escort him to the exit. During this time frame, several verbal exchanges occurred between security and Mims. A struggle and altercation occurred at the park exit where Mims' head hit the ground. Love, who witnessed the incident, used her cell phone to video record the incident. Mims was detained by security and later, a security officer advised both Mims and Six Flags personnel of their right to file a complaint. Mims elected not to file a complaint. On July 26, 2018, Mims filed a civil complaint in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County.

During the discovery process, appellees requested Six Flags "[a]dmit that video footage was recorded by loss prevention at the entrance to the park on June 17, 2018, during the time of the incident involving Nicholas Mims." Six Flags' response stated: "[a]dmitted that the entrance of the park was under video by loss prevention."

At trial, appellees presented several eyewitnesses including Mims' son, Dominic Mims and Antionette Love. Love testified that she recorded the altercation on her cell phone but mistakenly recorded only a short portion of the incident. The cell phone videotaken by Love, which consisted of one second of footage, was admitted. Kevin Clark, a former Chief of the Baltimore City Police Department, was admitted as an expert in policing and security2 and opined that Mims was subjected to a "strangulation hold," or a "throating[.]"3

On the third day of trial, prior to resting their case, appellees' counsel began to read into the record, the request for admission and response. Counsel for Six Flags objected, arguing that the response was outside of the scope of relevant evidence. The trial court overruled the objection and the admission was read.

During Six Flags' case in chief, Christopher Wheeler, an expert in the field of digital analysis of iPhones, opined that Love's cell phone video footage had been altered and turned into a one-second live photo or there was a third video file with unknown contents. He based his opinion on his analysis of the metadata. Six Flags used this evidence as the foundation for their spoliation claim.

Following the close of all evidence, the court, at Six Flags' request, instructed the jury on spoliation:

The destruction of or the failure to preserve evidence by [appellees] may give rise to an inference unfavorable to [appellees]. If you find that the intent was to conceal the evidence, the destruction or failure to preserve must be inferred to indicate that [appellees] believe that their case is weak and that they would not prevail if the evidence was preserved. If you find that the destruction orfailure to preserve the evidence was negligent you may, but are not required to, infer that the evidence, if preserved, would have been unfavorable to [appellees].

Counsel then made their closing arguments to the jury. Pertinent to this appeal, the following transpired during appellees' rebuttal closing argument:

[APPELLEES' COUNSEL:] Members of the jury, he spent all that time talking about Ms. Mims whose husband is getting beat down, not being able to record it. What did we read you in request for admissions? Admit that video footage was recorded by loss prevention at the entrance to the park on June 27, 2018 during the time of the incident involving . . . Nicholaus Mims, admit that the entrance of the park was under video by loss prevention.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] Objection, Your Honor. May we approach?
THE COURT: Certainly.

Counsel approached the bench, and the following colloquy occurred:

[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] So, Your Honor, my objection is, it was read into evidence, but the problem is, and counsel knows this because he took the deposition of a loss control officer, when they filed the complaint and when they filed their letter, the video had already been recorded over in the ordinary course, et cetera. He seems to be trying to get an inference of spoliation.
THE COURT: Well, he probably is, but I mean, he brought that up during
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] Again
THE COURT: This was brought up during testimony and you didn't counter it or say anything.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] Well, because you overruled my objection. But I'll say this, Your Honor, I don't want him to go any further with it. I didn't object until he got that out, and he certainly but he can't argue it because there is no inference of spoliation against us. We don't have duty to preserve stuff until they put us on notice that there's going to be litigation.
THE COURT: But he's doing it all on facts that are in evidence.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] I understand that. I don't want him to go any further. So that's what, you know, this is, because I don't think he can argue that there was spoliation because there you need to show
THE COURT: I mean, he I think he can give he can refer to it. I mean, it was referred to during trial.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] But there has to be under the case law there has to be finding that we destroyed video or didn't produce video at a time when we should have preserved it or destroyed it. We don't have that.
THE COURT: But I could say that about plenty of things. You all raise things, let's see, in particular, there was something where you kind of oh, there's something that you raised and I thought you were going to come back and have some proof about it, but you didn't. And you just kind of put it out there to kind of put it in the jury's mind. I can't remember exactly what it is now, but it happened twice.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] At least twice, I'm sure. I do that all the time, but
THE COURT: Right. And so that's [sic] that's what
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] But my point is he can't argue the spoliation instruction because it's directed to [appellees], because that's the only spoliation
THE COURT: I don't think he's arguing any instruction, he's just arguing that that's an admission that was admitted during trial
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] Right.
THE COURT: — and so where's video.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] And I would also say that it's beyond the scope of my argument, because I never talked about the video we took in any way, shape, or form, because it's not relevant. It was —
THE COURT: Go ahead.
[APPELLEES'COUNSEL:] Judge, he spent almost third of his argument talking about video, talking about Ms. Mims is not preserving video. This was read to the jury during the course of the trial, I'm simply reading it again, it was read during the trial, it's been admitted. It's an admitted fact.
THE COURT: It has been admitted and it is an admitted fact.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] Right.
THE COURT: It absolutely has been.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] But the problem is, for there to be an inference of less there's been no evidencethat the video would have shown anything, one thing or the other. And it has to be . . . negative inference from us, you have to have a finding that we were negligent in not preserving it after we had duty to do so or that we intentionally destroyed it. We didn't intentionally destroy anything
THE COURT: I don't think he's saying that you destroyed anything, he's just saying that nothing was ever admitted.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] Right. And he didn't request it. We also read the request for production of documents I made my record, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Yeah.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL:] I don't think it's going to matter.
THE COURT: I mean and counsel, I mean, are you making an argument that it was . . . or are you just referencing to them that apparently there was some video that it was admitted to you and we didn't see it?
[APPELLEES' COUNSEL:] That's all I'm saying, Judge.
...

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