Chrysler Group, LLC v. WaldenAnnotate this Case
In 2012, Bryan Harrell was driving his pickup truck at more than 50 miles per hour when he rear-ended the 1999 Jeep in which four-year-old Remington Walden was a rear-seat passenger, with his aunt behind the wheel. The impact left Harrell and Remington’s aunt unhurt, but fractured Remington’s femur. The impact also caused the Jeep’s rear-mounted gas tank to rupture and catch fire. Remington burned to death trying to escape; he lived for up to a minute as he burned, and witnesses heard him screaming. Remington’s parents (“Appellees”) sued both Chrysler and Harrell for wrongful death. At trial, in March and April of 2015, Appellees challenged the Jeep’s vehicle design, arguing that Chrysler should not have used a rear-mounted fuel tank. When questioning Chrysler Chief Operating Officer Mark Chernoby at trial, Appellees’ counsel asked about the CEO’s salary, bonus, and benefits; Marchionne himself was never questioned about his income and benefits. The trial court overruled Chrysler’s repeated relevance and wealth-of-a-party objections to this line of questioning. Appellees’ counsel referenced Marchionne’s compensation testimony again in closing, arguing, “what [Chrysler’s counsel] said Remi’s life was worth, Marchionne made 43 times as much in one year.” The jury determined that Chrysler acted with a reckless or wanton disregard for human life and failed to warn of the hazard that killed Remington. In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeal discussed admission of CEO compensation, holding “evidence of a witness’s relationship to a party is always admissible” and that the CEO’s compensation “made the existence of [the CEO’s] bias in favor of Chrysler more probable.” The Georgia Supreme Court held not that compensation evidence is always admissible to show the bias of an employee witness, or that it is never admissible, but that such evidence is subject to the Rule 403 analysis weighing the evidence’s unfair prejudice against its probative value. Because Chrysler did not raise a Rule 403 objection to the compensation evidence at issue in this appeal, the Supreme Court considered the question not under the ordinary abuse-of-discretion standard, but as a question of plain error. The Court concluded that under the particular circumstances of this case, it could not say that the prejudicial effect of the evidence so far outweighed its probative value that its admission was clear and obvious reversible error. Accordingly, although the Supreme Court disagreed with the rationale of the Court of Appeals, it ultimately affirmed its judgment.