Interesting decision out of Texas on the subject of video surveillance.
A worker suffered a back injury while working on an oil rig in January 2008. He sued his employer under the Jones Act alleging negligence and supply of an unseaworthy vessel. Four years and two spinal surgeries later he was placed under surveillance by his employer and filmed for about an hour performing a range of outdoor activities.
At trial the Harris County District Court considered the footage inadmissible without viewing it. The jury found for the plaintiff. On appeal the decision to exclude the footage was upheld. The employer appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas.
The Supreme Court found that the trial judge had erred. A trial court could not properly exercise its discretion to exclude without viewing it.
We hold that, as a general rule, a trial court should view video evidence before ruling on admissibility when the contents of the video are at issue. We recognize circumstances might arise where viewing is unnecessary or extremely onerous. For example, “[t]here may be cases where the probative value of the evidence is so minimal that it will be obvious to the court that the potential prejudice . . . substantially outweighs any probative value the evidence might have.” Additionally, video depositions need not be viewed before ruling on objections unless the objection is specific to a visual aspect of the deposition. Exigencies of trial, moreover, could make it difficult to find time to view a late-offered video, especially if the video is lengthy. The parties could potentially address such timing issues by submitting representative excerpts for the trial court’s review. In any event, trial courts should “undertake their best efforts in attempting to view the subject visual recording prior to ruling on its admissibility.” Exceptions should be few and far between.
A new trial was ordered.
Diamond Offshore Services Ltd v Williams (Supreme Court of Texas, 2 March 2018)