Essay Question 4.
P (a citizen of New York) sued D (a citizen of Connecticut) in the Federal District Court for the District of Connecticut under Connecticut law for negligence in connection with a car accident that occurred in Connecticut. P asked for $200,000 in damages. In his answer, D admitted P's damages and admitted that if he had been negligent, P's damages would be have been caused by this negligence. But D denied that he was negligent. After discovery, P moved for summary judgment, offering in support of his motion an affidavit from a witness who stated that she saw D texting at the time of the accident. D offered no evidence in opposition to the motion. Texting while driving is a violation of Connecticut traffic regulations. Furthermore, under Connecticut law, if the defendant is found to have violated the texting regulation, there is a presumption of negligence that can be overcome only through the introduction of contrary evidence by the defendant. Under Connecticut law, however, a jury is not required to accept the testimony of a witness, even if the witness is disinterested, uncontradicted, and unimpeached. In the case of Jones v. Smith, however, a federal court in Connecticut held (in the context of a federal civil rights action) that the testimony of a disinterested, uncontradicted, and unimpeached witness must be accepted by a jury. Jones v. Smith was affirmed by the First Circuit and the Supreme Court refused to grant cert. How should the federal court decide P's motion for summary judgment?
This is an Erie question. There are two Connecticut rules that need to be discussed. The first is the rule that if the defendant is found to have violated the Connecticut texting regulation, there is a presumption of negligence that can be overcome only through the introduction of contrary evidence by the defendant (let us call this the texting rule). Must a federal court sitting in diversity apply the texting rule or is it free to allow the jury to come to its own conclusion about the extent to which texting is relevant to negligence? If the federal court does not have to use the texting rule, then summary judgment for the plaintiff is inappropriate. Even if a reasonable jury must accept the testimony of the disinterested, uncontradicted, and unimpeached witness that the defendant was texting (more on this later), in the absence of the texting rule a reasonable jury might still conclude that texting was not enough for negligence, despite the absence of any contrary evidence by the defendant.
First of all, we seem to be in the federal common law track. There is no FRCP or federal rule of evidence (that we know of) that addresses when a jury can take texting as evidence of negligence. If federal courts come to their own conclusion on the matter, they will be making federal common law. But may they? Here it seems clear that the texting rule must be applied by the federal court. This is pretty clearly an example of a procedural rule that is, as Brennan put it in Byrd, "bound up with [state law] rights and obligations in such a way that its application in the federal court is required" as a constitutional matter. Connecticut wants to use its negligence law to discourage texting while driving and a federal court entertaining a case under Connecicut negligence law must respect this. [What I've said here would be enough, but one might go on to examine the texting rule assuming it is not bound up with Connecticut rights and obligations. This would take into account forum shopping, countervailing federal interests etc. Under this analysis it would be clear that the texting rule should be applied by the federal court as well. I won't go into that here. ]
The next Connecticut rule is that a jury is not required to accept the testimony of a witness, even if the witness is disinterested, uncontradicted, and unimpeached (let us call this the witness rule) The federal rule, articulated in the federal question case of Jones v. Smith, is that the testimony of a disinterested, uncontradicted, and unimpeached witness must be accepted by the jury. If the federal rule is used, summary judgment for P is appropriate. A reasonable jury would have to believe the witness's testimony that D was texting and since, under the texting rule, texting creates a presumption of negligence, a reasonable jury would have to believe that D was negligent. On the other hand, if Connecticut's witness rule is used, it seems that summary judgment would be inappriate. A reasonable jury would be free to disbelieve the witness and find that the defendant was not texting, so summary judgment for the plaintiff could not be granted.
Should this be in the FRCP track? Is the matter covered by R 56 (governing summary judgment)? [Here I would expect you to take a stand. There is an argument that there is a direct conflict between R 56 and the Connecticut witness rule, since the witness rule makes it impossible to grant for summary judgment in so many cases. On the other hand, it is not clear that the text of R 56 is directly contrary to the witness rule. It is also worth noting that the same issue of a federal or state standard would occur at trial when determining whether a directed verdict is appropriate. So there is also a possible direct conflict with R 50.]
Assuming the matter is in the federal procedural common law track, the question then arises whether the difference between federal and Connecticut law would lead to forum shopping and the inequitable adminsitration of the laws. [Here you would take a stand. It seems that they would, since a P with a disinterested, uncontradicted, and unimpeached witness would choose federal rather than Connecticut state court.] But are there any countervailing federal interests? [Here the most obvious would be efficiency interests in disposing on summary judgment cases in which there are disinterested, uncontradicted, and unimpeached witnesses. If Connecticut's witness rule is used by federal courts, more cases would have to go to trial. Also relevant is the statement in Byrd that "[a]n essential characteristic of [the federal court] system is the manner in which, in civil common-law actions, it distributes trial functions between judge and jury." Unlike Byrd, however, here the matter is taken away from the jury under the federal approach. In Byrd the federal approach was one in which the issue was given to a jury.]
[I would then expect you to come to a conclusion - the weight of opinion appears to be in favor of federal law on the matter controlling. See Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2525.]
Many of you ignored Connecticut's texting rule and only discussed its witness rule. Many of you did not entertain the possibility of a direct conflict between Connecticut's witness rule and R 56. Some of you came to the conclusion that because the federal approach to disinterested, uncontradicted, and unimpeached witnesses was articulated in a federal civil rights case, it applied only in such cases. I said nothing in the question that suggested this. It was fine to mention this possibility, but you should have gone on to discuss what the result would be if the federal approach were not so limited. There are, after all, very good arguments for using the federal approach in all cases.