A Motion in Limine in civil proceedings is a potent weapon for a practicing attorney when used properly and filed appropriately. The Latin phrase “in limine” means “on the threshold” and therefore a motion in limine refers to a motion made on the threshold of trial. Although there are different versions of motions in limine available, it is generally referred to as “a pretrial request that certain inadmissible evidence cannot be referred to or offered at trial.” An astute attorney can use the motion in limine as a shield as well as a sword.
In most jurisdictions, the authority for the use of motions in limine stems from the trial court’s inherent discretionary power to admit or exclude prejudicial evidence. Over the years this power has evolved by case law rather than from statutes and rules of procedure. A properly pleaded motion in limine can serve a variety of purposes:
1) To prevent introduction of improper evidence: A motion in limine can prevent an opposing party from placing irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial evidence before the jury provided it is carefully drafted. The motion should state with precision the evidence sought to be excluded and provide a succinct explanation as to why the evidence is deemed prejudicial. Often, motions in limine seek to exclude evidence no seasoned trial attorney would offer or at times seek to preclude the opposing party from generically violating provisions of the Evidence code. Such generic motions should be avoided as it might impair the attorney’s credibility before court moving forward.
2) To secure sanctions for failure to comply with discovery requests: A motion in limine can also been used to secure sanctions for failure to comply with discovery requests. In such cases, the burden of showing prejudice is on the party who files the motion in limine for sanctions for a discovery violation. A motion in limine is normally used in this context when the trial court’s rulings regarding discovery are unclear or where there is uncertainty as to whether there has been full compliance with a discovery order entered previously by the court.
3) To facilitate the admission of evidence: A motion in limine can be tactfully used to seek admission of evidence the court may otherwise consider offensive. A motion at this stage serves two purposes – if the court allows the motion, introducing the controversial evidence will have the explicit sanction of the court. If not, the client can be assured that effort was made to admit the evidence.
4) To foster settlement: Filing a motion in limine can lull a party into a sense of complacency and can have a positive effect on bringing on settlement. The motion will provide the parties an over view of the admissible and inadmissible evidence in a case. This can help in evaluating the pros and cons of a case lending at least a hint of predictability at trial.
5) To educate the court: A motion in limine is made in writing and therefore becomes part of the court file. Even if the court ultimately denies the motion or allows it, the motion filed can serve to educate the court that is an obvious advantage to the proponent. In addition, by initiating the motion and briefing it, the proponent is in a better position to preserve a record for appeal.
An attorney who uses the motion in limine only stands to gain – if allowed the attorney has protected his/her case from prejudicial evidence and has enhanced his/ her bargaining position; if denied, the attorney has gained insight into the opponent’s case and has helped preserve his/her objection for appeal. The bottom line is that motions in limine are useful tools that benefit the attorney provided it is used judiciously. This weapon should remain at the forefront of every attorney’s arsenal.