June 11, 2024

Filtering Out Prejudicial Evidence: Motions in Limine in NC Injury Cases 

When you envision a personal injury trial, you might picture lawyers dramatically objecting to improper questions or inadmissible evidence. But there’s actually a much earlier process for keeping out unfair, irrelevant information that could bias the jury. It’s called filing a motion in limine—and it can make or break an injured person’s case. 

What Is a Motion in Limine? 

A motion in limine is a request made before trial asking the judge to exclude specific pieces of evidence that could unfairly prejudice the jury. It translates literally to “at the outset”—as these motions aim to filter out distracting, improper evidence from the very start. 

Essentially, it argues that certain information is not admissible under the rules of evidence. The court has discretion to grant or deny these motions. But when allowed, they ensure the proceedings focus squarely on the legitimate facts and legal issues. 

What Topics Can Be Targeted? 

Motions in limine can seek to exclude any topic that fails to meet the standards for admissible evidence under North Carolina rules. This includes evidence that is: 

  • Irrelevant to the matter 
  • Unfairly prejudicial, confusing, or misleading 
  • Improperly character evidence 
  • Hearsay or privileged information 

The key is showing why that piece of evidence would unfairly rouse negative emotions in the jury, outweighing any probative value it may have. 

Making Your Case for Exclusion 

To illustrate how these motions work, imagine a premises liability case here in Winston-Salem. Say you were seriously injured after slipping and falling at a grocery store due to a hazardous spill that was not cleaned up properly. Your attorney would likely file a motion in limine to exclude any mention of the fact that you were arrested for a DUI five years ago. 

Your previous unrelated run-in with the law has nothing to do with the store’s negligence. But if the jury heard about it, they may be improperly biased to think you were careless or irresponsible in the fall incident as well. This could unfairly sway their impartial evaluation of the evidence. 

Your attorney would argue the prejudicial effect of that DUI evidence substantially outweighs any relevance it may have. They would cite the rules prohibiting improper character evidence and prejudicial information. Barring any legitimate probative value, the judge will ideally grant the motion to exclude it. 

When Evidence Still Slips Through 

Of course, judges have discretion in making these decisions. Sometimes prejudicial evidence may still be admitted if the other side can convince the court of its relevance and probative value. Your attorney would then need to request a limiting instruction. 

A limiting instruction is when the judge advises the jury to consider that piece of evidence only for a specific, proper purpose—not for any improper reasoning. For example, if your DUI ultimately was allowed, the judge may instruct the jurors to only use that conviction to evaluate your credibility as a witness, not as a commentary on your carelessness. 

The Impact on Your Trial Strategy 

How motions in limine are ruled can profoundly shape trial strategy on both sides. If evidence is successfully excluded, your lawyer won’t need to spend time reworking certain witness questions or lines of argument. But if it’s allowed, they’ll need to craft a careful approach to explaining away or justifying that information. 

Every ruling affects decisions like: 

  • What witnesses to call and how to question them 
  • What exhibits or demonstratives to prepare 
  • The content and wording for opening/closing statements 

So while these pre-trial motions may seem dull compared to heated courtroom debates, they lay critical groundwork for protecting your credibility and the overall integrity of the proceedings. 

The Importance of Leveling the Playing Field 

At their core, motions in limine aim to prevent the unfair injection of bias into deliberations. When irrelevant, inflammatory information is allowed, it can distract the jury from applying the law properly to the legitimate facts. For injury victims seeking justice, having that level playing field is paramount. By filtering out prejudicial distractions early on, your legal team can steer the focus to where it belongs—weighing the evidence based on the merits of your case alone. 

This information is provided by Harris Legal for general benefit, education, and interest. If you have a specific legal question, you should consult with an attorney.