United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
JOHNNIE WILSON, DWIGHT WILSON, HASSAN TURNER, C.S., Z.S., N.S. and A.S Plaintiffs,
STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY Defendant.
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL
AS TO JOHNNIE WILSON (ECF NO. 49)
COHN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
an insurance case. Plaintiff Johnnie Wilson is suing State
Farm for denying his claim for insurance coverage for the
loss suffered after a fire at his home. Wilson was the named
insured on the policy.
trial, Wilson moved to exclude evidence of his poverty. The
Court declined and “indicated it would review the issue
if the issue was pertinent after the jury's
verdict.” (ECF No. 49, PageID. 462). The jury
unanimously found that Wilson had a wrongful connection to
the fire. (ECF No. 44). Now before the Court is Wilson's
motion for a new trial. (ECF No. 49). For the reasons that
follow, Wilson's motion is DENIED.
Civ. P. 59(a) provides that following a jury verdict, the
court may grant a new trial “for any of the reasons for
which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at
law in the courts of the United States.” In
Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243
(1940), the Supreme Court held that a, “motion for new
trial may invoke the discretion of the court in so far as it
is bottomed on the claim that the verdict is against the
weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or
that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the moving
argues a new trial is warranted because the jury improperly
heard evidence of his poverty and that the only evidence
connecting him to the fire was the hole in the roof of the
home. (ECF No. 49).
Farm argues it properly introduced evidence of Wilson's
declining financial condition as evidence of motive to set
the fire. Further, State Farm says the evidence of the hole
was one piece of evidence connecting Wilson to the fire and
evidence of his deteriorating financial condition was
People v. Henderson, 408 Mich. 56, 66 (1980), the
Michigan Supreme Court discussed when it is permissible to
introduce evidence of poverty, finding that evidence of
poverty is not ordinarily admissible to show motive given the
low probative value but high prejudicial impact. “There
is a risk that it will cause jurors to view a defendant as a
“bad man” a poor provider, a worthless
individual.” Id. Other evidence of financial
condition may, however, be admissible in the circumstance of
a particular case. The court distinguished evidence of
poverty showing that a person is chronically short of funds
and evidence showing that a person is experiencing a shortage
of funds that is out of the ordinary, finding that the latter
is admissible to show motive. Id.
relies heavily on Smith v. Michigan Basic Prop. Ins.
Ass'n, 441 Mich. 181, 195, 490 (1992) to argue any
evidence of Wilson's poverty or financial condition
should be excluded. In Smith, the Michigan Supreme
Court agreed with the lower courts that evidence of the
Smiths' financial condition should not be admitted. The
Court cited Henderson, supra, to say that the
insurer was using evidence of financial condition improperly,
stating “[the insurance company] made no effort to show
that there had been a deterioration in the Smiths'
financial condition. During the argument on the motion, the
Smiths' lawyer stated without objection that the
“facts are undisputed that my clients, while not having
high income also were not behind on any of their bills, were
not in financial distress, were not under any pressure from
any creditors or anyone else to pay money. But merely,
they're poor people.” Id.
State Farm properly admitted evidence showing that in the
months leading up to the fire, Wilson's financial
condition continued to deteriorate. It was that
deterioration, coupled with the fact that the home was
insured for much more than it was worth on the market, that
provided Wilson with the motive to collect insurance proceeds
through arson. (ECF No. 51-2; PageID.515).
Farm's evidence of Wilson's declining financial state
was as follows:
. State Farm paid Wilson approximately $21,
000.00 in 2015 in connection with a roof damage claim, which
he claims his public insurance adjuster stole. At the time of
the fire, ...