Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Company

RESPONDENT: Bock Laundry Machine Company
LOCATION: United States District Court, Western District North Carolina, Charlotte Division

DOCKET NO.: 87-1816
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 490 US 504 (1989)
ARGUED: Jan 18, 1989
DECIDED: May 22, 1989

Joseph M. Melillo - on behalf of the Petitioner
Thomas D. Caldwell, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

The petitioner from this case brief, Paul Green, has been one of the prisoners. He was going through the work-release program at the car wash. One day, Green entered a large dryer in order to turn it off, and his arm was torn off. As a result, he decided to sue the dryer’s producer, Bock Laundry Company, for product liability. Eventually, they impeached him at trial for demonstrating Paul’s two felony convictions. It should be indicated that Green was previously convicted of theft and a related felony. In conclusion, the jury ruled in favor of the corporation.

However, Paul choose to appeal the denial of a pretrial motion since he wanted to reject the impeaching evidence, basing on Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a). As the case study explains, the fact that the victim happened to be a convicted felon should have been taken into consideration only to prove the reliability of witnesses rather then decide against him on the prejudiced grounds.

In addition to that, the aforementioned requirement excludes the judicial exercise of responsibility under Rule 403. It approves the omission of relevant evidence if its probative force is considerably exceeded by the risk of unreasonable prejudice.

All in all, the appellate judges picked the side of Green. They were sure that there were no mistakes when the jury in this product liability suit learned through impeaching cross-examination that Paul has been treated as a convicted felon. The man chose to appeal the United States Supreme Court for review.


Media for Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 18, 1989 in Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Company

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 87-1716, Paul Green v. The Bock Laundry.

You may proceed whenever you are ready.

Joseph M. Melillo:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The issue in this case is whether the Congress intended Federal Rule of Evidence 609-A-1 could be the standard for deciding whether to admit evidence of a party's felonies for purposes of impeachment in a civil case.

Petitioner takes the position that Congress intended no such thing.

Such a view of the law of that particular rule leads to results which are not only unfair, but bizarre.

Rather, Petitioner takes the view, as have most of the courts which have decided this issue that in civil cases, the trial judge must retain significant discretion over whether to admit such evidence.

By way of background, this case arose as a civil product liability case.

Allegedly, a laundry water extractor manufactured by Bock Machine Company was defective and that defect resulted in the Plaintiff, the 19-year old Plaintiff's arm being torn off.

In the Third Circuit, in the case of Diggs v. Lyons, there was a decision... two to one... that in civil cases, Rule 609(a)(1) mandates without any part of discretion, on the part of the trial judge, that evidence of impeachment felonies must be admitted in a civil case.

For that reason, the trial judge was bound in this case to admit such evidence.

Since the Diggs decision, one other circuit court has joined that reasoning in the case of Greer v.... Campbell v. Greer in the Seventh Circuit.

And I would point out that since joining that decision, the Seventh Circuit now has a division within it... excuse me, the Eighth Circuit now has a division within itself.

So that now, there is not only a division between the Circuits, it is the one... the First, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth takes the view that there is discretion, but now, the Third and Seventh oppose that.

And within the Seventh there is itself, a division between panels.

It is Petitioner's position that Diggs and Campbell are wrong for the following reasons.

The literal language of the rule could not sensibly be applied to civil cases, if it intended such a result.

Second, the legislative record does not show that Congress intended that result.

Third, other principles of statutory construction, well settled in our law, would be violated if that result occurred.

Turning first to the literal language of the rule... the rule says that felonies will be admitted unless... unless the probative value of such evidence is outweighed by its prejudicial effect to the defendant.

It does not say criminal defendant; it does not say civil defendant.

If you were to apply that rule literally to civil cases, you would have to apply a weighing or balancing procedure to the civil defendant or the civil plaintiff or other witnesses would not have the advantage of that particular rule.

William H. Rehnquist:

These rules are applicable in both criminal and civil proceedings, aren't they?

Joseph M. Melillo:

Generally so.

William H. Rehnquist:

So when they say the defendant in these rules, they could mean the criminal defendant?

Joseph M. Melillo:

And I believe that is exactly what they did mean, the criminal defendant.

But the point is that the rule is so ambiguous on its face, that it lends credence to the view which I intend to get into, that Congress never considered the effect the rule should have with respect to civil parties.

Congress was consumed solely with the plight of the criminal defendant when it debated and enacted this rule.

The rule cannot be sensibly applied in civil cases.

William H. Rehnquist:

Why can't it?