Motions in Limine: The Complete Guide

    Whether representing the plaintiff or defendant, there are certain facts that simply shouldn’t be permissible in court. Often, these facts are highly prejudicial to a case—so much so, that a jury’s decision could be in some way colored by this knowledge. In such cases, motions in limine can be used to keep this evidence contained. These motions are meant to keep the courtroom’s focus on the issues at hand. Used effectively, motions in limine can be powerful tools in securing a favorable outcome for your client at trial.

    What is a motion in limine?

    A motion in limine is a motion filed to prevent the introduction of evidence that would have a prejudicial effect on the case if the jury were to so much as hear it exists. In Latin, in limine means “at the threshold” or “at the beginning.” True to their name, motions in limine are typically filed before a legal hearing begins. Motions in limine may also be filed during a trial, but before potentially prejudicial evidence is heard.

    Although these motions may be filed at the start of a trial, they are not always ruled upon at that time. Often, a judge examines a motion in limine before they’re familiar with the case and the issues at hand. To obtain context, the judge may deny the motion and defer ruling until some of the evidence is revealed at trial. A judge may also tentatively grant a motion in limine until the prejudicial evidence is proffered for examination.

    How is this different from other objections?

    Objections to the admissibility of evidence—including prejudicial or irrelevant evidence—are usually made when the evidence is offered at trial. The jury may hear both the question and the witness’s answer before a ruling is made. Though the court may sustain an objection and order the jury to forget or ignore what they just heard, it is a fact of human cognition that jurors cannot completely erase that memory from their minds. When the evidence is particularly inflammatory, the imprint left behind can cause serious damage to jurors’ ability to reach a fair conclusion.

    Who files a motion in limine?

    A motion in limine is normally filed by the attorney whose argument will be most directly or prejudicially harmed by the evidence in question. The motion may be challenged by the opposing counsel. But in some cases, the motion is supported by both attorneys if the potentially shared information is overall prejudicial and neither party can predict how the jury will side.

    For instance, imagine the jury learned that the responding police officer in a car accident case knew the plaintiff personally. This could potentially weigh against the plaintiff if jurors were to assume they were friendly and, thus, the officer downplayed the plaintiff’s involvement. In this scenario, the defendant could also be harmed if the jurors assumed the two were at odds and that the officer was out to make an example of the plaintiff. Rather than become bogged down in details about the relationship between the officer and plaintiff, both parties may agree to omit reference to the acquaintances so as to better focus the jury’s attention on the facts of the case.

    How do you write a motion in limine?

    To write an effective motion in limine, an attorney must carefully clarify which piece of evidence should be excluded along with precise rationale. To be considered by the court, the motion should fully explain why the evidence is so prejudicial and exactly how its mere mention will result in an unfair outcome at trial.

    In compiling a motion in limine, counsel should also carefully assess their motion’s intent. Motions seeking to stop opposing counsel from violating some provision of the applicable rules of evidence or to exclude evidence that isn’t likely to be submitted in the first place will often do more harm than good. For example, such a motion might tip your hand as to a planned strategy for the case. It could also prompt opposing counsel to think of all new lines of attack. The risk of the latter is particularly high when discovery is limited or when opposing counsel is relatively new to the practice area.

    What happens if a motion in limine is granted to opposing counsel?

    In the case of an opposing motion in limine being granted, an attorney should seek to present the evidence that supports their case as completely as is allowed. There are a few options for presenting evidence even with the inclusion of a motion in limine. Counsel may file deposition testimony, file an expert’s report, call the expert witness to the stand outside the hearing of the jury, or even provide a narrative of what the witness would testify to if called. It should be noted, as well, that some motions in limine are granted “tentatively,” which means they may be reversed once the court sees the evidence in question.

    Motions in limine can also be defeated by their own filers. If you’re facing a motion in limine, pay attention to the evidence opposing counsel presents—it could open the door to the excluded evidence. Alternatively, if you have had a motion in limine granted, prepare your own case with attention to the line between your evidence and the evidence you wish to have excluded so that you do not inadvertently open the door to the prejudicial evidence.

    Are there alternatives to motions in limine?

    Motions in limine share features with both Daubert motions and motions for summary judgment. As such, it’s important to consider these overlaps in order to proceed with the most appropriate motion. Motions in limine may address evidence that will be presented by an expert witness, including the expert witness’s opinion. However, if the reason for excluding the expert’s opinion is that the expert is not qualified, a Daubert motion is better tailored to address the issue.

    In other cases, excluding a certain piece of evidence via a motion in limine could have the effect of disposing of an element of a party’s claim or defense. If disposing of this element makes the verdict clear as a matter of law, a summary judgment motion is a more appropriate way to bring up the topic. A court that grants a motion in limine in this instance, risks committing a harmful error. Such a misstep can complicate the case, requiring greater time, effort, and expense to reach a conclusion.