Ohio Law on the Admissibility of Autopsy Reports, Arrests and Negligence per se Violations
"A motion in limine is designed ‘to avoid the injection into a trial of a potentially prejudicial matter which is not relevant and is inadmissible.’” Smith v. ProMedica Health System, Inc., 2007 WL 2332070, at *2 (Ohio Ct. App. 2007) (quoting Reinhart v. Toledo Blade Co., 487 N.E. 2d 920, 924 (Ohio Ct. App. 1985)). “Though not expressly provided for by rule or statute, the ability of a court to entertain [motions in limine] lies in the inherent power and discretion of the trial judge.” Rich v. Quinn, 468 N.E.2d 365, 369 (Ohio Ct. App. 1983).
“A motion in limine may be used in two different ways: (1) as the equivalent of a motion to suppress evidence, which is either not competent or improper because of some unusual circumstance; and (2) as a means of raising objection to an area of inquiry to prevent prejudicial questions and statements until the admissibility of the questionable evidence can be determined during the course of the trial.” Riverside Methodist Hosp. Ass’n of Ohio v. Guthrie, 444 N.E.2d 1358, 1361 (Ohio. Ct. App. 1982).
According to Ohio Rule of Evidence 401, the definition of relevance is as follows: “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” Ohio. R. Evid. 401. Irrelevant evidence is inadmissible in an action. Ohio R. Evid. 402. Admissible evidence is mandatorily excluded, “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, of confusion of the issues, or of misleading the jury.” Ohio R. Evid. 403(A). Furthermore, admissible evidence may be excluded “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by considerations of undue delay, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.” Ohio R. Evid. 403(B).
Admissibility of Autopsy Report
To start, Ohio Revised Code § 313.10, Records to be public; exceptions; copies to be provided upon request, states:
(A)(1) Except as otherwise provided in this section, the records of the coroner who has jurisdiction over the case, including, but not limited to, the detailed descriptions of the observations written during the progress of an autopsy and the conclusions drawn from those observations filed in the office of the coroner under division (A) of section 313.13 of the Revised Code, made personally by the coroner or by anyone acting under the coroner’s direction or supervision, are public records. Those records, or transcripts or photostatic copies of them, certified by the coroner shall be received as evidence in any criminal or civil action or proceeding in a court in this state, as to the facts contained in those records. The coroner of the county where the death was pronounced shall be responsible for the release of all public records relating to that death.
(2) Except as otherwise provided in division (D) or (E) of this section, the following records in a coroner’s office are not public records:
(a) Preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings made by the coroner or by anyone acting under the coroner’s direction or supervision;
(b) Photographs of a decedent made by the coroner or by anyone acting under the coroner’s direction or supervision;
(c) Suicide notes;
(d) Medical and psychiatric records provided to the coroner, a duty coroner, or a representative of the coroner or a deputy coroner under section 313.091 of the Revised Code;
(e) Records of a deceased individual that are confidential law enforcement investigatory records as defined in section 149.43 of the Revised Code;
(f) Laboratory reports generated from the analysis of physical evidence by the coroner’s laboratory that is discoverable under Criminal Rule 16.
(3) In the coroner’s discretion, photographs of a decedent may be used for medical, legal or educational purposes.
R.C. § 313.10.
Although Ohio statute mandates that an autopsy report would be admissible into evidence, there are some procedural nuances to keep in mind. First, where the autopsy report is described mostly in medical terms, the autopsy report may have little or no probative value without a qualified medical expert witness. State ex rel. Szekely v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 239 N.E.2d 665, 669 (Ohio 1968). The State ex rel. Szekely court articulated the probativeness of an autopsy report which consisted mostly of medical terms:
[a]n understanding of these medical terms requires a special knowledge thereof that would ordinarily be far beyond the comprehension of laymen. For this reason, that autopsy report would be useful to the trier of the facts in the instant case (the Industrial Commission) only if interpreted by medical experts. In other words, the autopsy report, without such interpretation, can have little probative value on the question of whether there was a proximate causal connection between decedent’s death and his exposure to silica dust during his employment over 15 years before.
State ex rel. Szekely, 239 N.E.2d at 669; see also Stacey v. Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corp., 101 N.E.2d 897 (Ohio 1951); Fox v. Industrial Comm., 125 N.E.2d 1 (Ohio 1955); Drakulich v. Industrial Comm., 27 N.E.2d 932 (Ohio 1940).
Second, Ohio has held that an autopsy may not be admissible as substantive evidence where the signatories were not placed under oath at the time and where plaintiff was not able to cross examine the signatories. Armstrong v. Travelers’ Ins. Co., 1914 WL 1183, at *3 (Ohio Ct. App. 1914). Third, Ohio has recognized autopsy reports “as admissible as a business record of the coroner’s office even though no employee of that office made the report.” Fry v. King, 950 N.E.2d 229, (Ohio Ct. App. 2011).
Thus, an autopsy report will most likely be admitted. With that stated, depending on the contents of the autopsy report, expert witness testimony may be required.
Admissibility of Arrests/Conviction
“It is the general rule that in a civil action the question of arrest is immaterial.” Wolfe v. Baskin, 28 N.E.2d 629 (Ohio 1940); O’Toole v. Lemmerman, 2002 WL 31261005, at *3 (Ohio Ct. App. 2002). However, a party’s guilty plea may be admissible into evidence. Freas v. Sullivan, 1935 WL 1912, at *3 (Ohio Ct. App. 1935), rev’d on other grounds, 200 N.E. 639 (Ohio 1936).
The general notion in Ohio is that although an arrest is immaterial as it relates to the finding of negligence, a guilty plea may be admissible into evidence.
Ohio Negligence Per Se
Ohio has recognized that negligence per se can be founded upon a violation of a specific statute or ordinance that is designed for the protections of others. Schell v. DuBois, 113 N.E. 664 (Ohio 1916). An Ohio court has stated that:
A court applies the doctrine [of negligence per se] by recognizing a statute or administrative rule as fixing a standard of conduct deviation from which constitute negligence… In other words, the statute or rule establishes the standard of conduct, thereby replacing in most cases the ‘reasonable person’ standard. Bonds v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 687 N.E.2d 300, 304 (Ohio Ct. App. 1996).
Moreover, Ohio has recognized that a violation of a specific statute or ordinance established to protect the public can create negligence per se, even though the statute or ordinance does not clearly create a cause of action in favor of the injured person. Schell, 133 N.E. at 665.
When a state statute imposes a specific duty of safety to the public, a person’s failure to act in accordance with that specific duty constitutes negligence per se. Chambers v. St. Mary’s School, 697 N.E.2d 198 (1998). If a defendant’s actions fail to comply with the state statute which imposes a specific duty of safety to the public, then the plaintiff is relieved of proving the elements of duty and breach and is only required to establish that the defendant’s conduct was the proximate cause of the injuries plaintiff sustained. See Chambers, 697 N.E.2d. at 201 (citing Eisenhuth v. Moneyhon, 119 N.E.2d 440, 440-41 (Ohio 1954).
According to Ohio Revised Code 2903.06(3)(A), no person shall cause the death of another by negligently operating a motor vehicle. See R.C. 2903.06. Ohio Revised Code 2903.06 imposes a duty of ordinary care when operating a motor vehicle. The driver of the motor vehicle holding the client failed to conduct himself in accordance with the ordinary care standard required in Ohio Revised Code 2903.06. The driver’s conduct in attempting to overtake the commercial motor vehicle was negligent and reckless. Thus, the driver failed to act in compliance with the statutory duty to exercise reasonable care when operating the motor vehicle on the day of the collision. Additionally, the driver pled guilty to R.C. 2903.06, and the driver’s negligence was the actual and proximate cause of the injuries of his passenger. As such, plaintiff should be allowed to obtain a negligence per se and a judgment on its claim of negligence against the driver.
Hopefully this gives you a quick resource as to the law on the admissibility of autopsy reports, arrests, quality please and Negligence per se.
Today, Jim Heneghan explains the Ohio law on the admissibility of autopsy reports, arrests/convictions and negligence per se violations.