Less Is More in the World of Trial Animations
By Elan E. Weinreb
Elan E. Weinreb is a fifth-year litigation associate at Kaye Scholer LLP in New York City. He can be contacted at eweinreb@kayescholer.com.
Computer-generated animations are powerful tactical weapons in the arsenal of the modern trial attorney. Recent hardware and software developments in animation provide enhanced details, effects, and perspectives that can help you build a stronger case. The Web site Animation Magazine (www.animationmagazine.net) is only one of many sources of information concerning these developments.
In some cases, particularly those that require complex evidentiary foundations and realistic animations of past events or conditions, litigators should take advantage of these bells and whistles to the utmost. However, in others, particularly those involving animations that visually clarify testimony, it may be best to forgo the icing in favor of the cake. By keeping animations simple and straightforward, one can avoid adverse evidentiary decisions, ensure that jury members experience persuasive, demonstrative evidence, and protect trial rulings from reversal on appeal. A state criminal case involving Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) and a federal products liability case illustrate this “less is more” concept.
In the criminal case, State v. Sayles, 662 N.W.2d 1 (Iowa 2003), the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s admission—albeit with a limiting instruction—of an animation depicting the mechanics of SBS. Brandon Sayles, the defendant and father of two-month-old baby Adaym Sayles, was charged with child endangerment causing serious injury after Adaym was brought to a hospital suffering from seizures, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms. A physician, Dr. Karen Gerdes, who examined Adaym at the hospital, determined that the infant had been shaken intentionally, resulting in blindness and other permanent injuries.
Prior to trial, the State moved in limine to introduce animated slides prepared by the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome as explanatory supplements to Dr. Gerdes’ testimony. The State’s motion, over the defendant’s unfair prejudice objection, was granted, and the jury, which convicted Brandon Sayles, witnessed the slides at trial.
On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the slides’ admissibility and observed that the trial court properly considered “the nature of the demonstration portrayed in the slide. The animation was not overly dramatic. It was clinical in nature and the computer-generated infant showed no facial expression and emitted no sound during the shaking.” Id. at 11 (emphasis added). Tailored precisely to achieve its litigation objective—the visual elucidation of Dr. Gerdes’ testimony—the State’s animation successfully withstood an unfair prejudice challenge.
In contrast to the animation involved in Sayles, the animation in the products liability case Friend et al. v. Time Mfg. Co., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52790 (D. Ariz. July 28, 2006), which was ultimately settled out of court, did not withstand attack. In this case, the plaintiff Armando Friend, a cable technician, suffered severe electrical shock injuries after coming into contact with power lines. At the time of his accident, he was on a lift manufactured by defendant Time Manufacturing. He sued Time on a defective design theory, claiming that if Time’s lift had functioned properly, he would not have been injured.
The defendants sought to introduce at trial an animation to depict the accident scene. In response, the plaintiffs moved in limine to exclude presentation of the animation on grounds of unfair prejudice. The Friend court partially granted the motion and excluded portions of the animation because it went beyond its stated purpose—accident scene depiction. Specifically, the court held that an animated character representing Friend in the animation created a “potentially false impression that [Friend]. . . failed to take any evasive action [and] did not even realize he was about to hit the wires while attempting to ‘sight the line,’ i.e., viewing a cable connection from the pole to a nearby house.” Id. at 22. The Friend court therefore permitted the defendants to show their computer animation only if all portions containing the Friend character were excised, resulting in more cake with less icing—an animation that fairly represented the scene of the accident and only that scene.
Sayles and Friend both demonstrate the principle that “less is more” in the world of trial animations. They teach that by keeping animations simple and straightforward, you can increase the potential for admissibility of persuasive material and the likelihood that jury members will fully comprehend witness testimony. Furthermore, in situations involving the animation of an adversary, this principle can be used to bolster an evidentiary counterattack. By scrutinizing your adversary’s animation as carefully as your own for prejudicial enhancements— such as high-contrast colors or motion depiction inconsistent with the laws of physics—like the plaintiffs in Friend, you may be able to successfully challenge the admissibility of such an animation and increase your chances of winning the case.