Johnson v. Elk Lake School District

283 F.3d 138 (3d Cir. 2002)

One-Sentence Takeaway: While uncharged conduct of a similar “offense of sexual assault” is admissible under Rule 415 of the Federal Rules of Evidence in a civil trial seeking damages for sexual assault, some limits need to be placed on its admissibility in order to ensure that the plaintiff may not parade past the jury a litany of potentially prejudicial similar acts that have been established or connected to the defendant only by unsubstantiated innuendo.


Plaintiff (a minor) claimed that Defendant (her counselor) sexually harassed and abused her.  Plaintiff tried to admit the testimony of another teacher who claimed that on one incident, Defendant picked her up and touched her private area.  But this testimony was very confusing and the witness wasn’t really sure if Defendant touched her intentionally or by accident.  Trial judge refused to admit the testimony of this witness.

The court of appeals affirmed the ruling of the trial court.

The court first recognized that Federal Rules of Evidence 413, 414 and 415 establish exceptions to the general prohibition on character evidence in cases involving sexual assault and child molestation.  However, the court reasoned that those rules are still vulnerable to Rule 403 where relevant evidence can be excluded if its probative value is outweighed by the risk of prejudice.

In this case, even if Defendant’s previous act of picking up the witness constituted sexual assault, the exclusion of the testimony was proper under Rule 403.  From the evidence, it was clear that witness was not sure as to whether Defendant intended to touch her private area.  Where a past act cannot be shown with reasonable certainty, its probative value is reduced and it may prejudice the Defendant unfairly, confuse the issues, mislead the jury, and result in undue delay and wasted time.  Also, this previous event was so different form the conduct Plaintiff was charging Defendant of that its probative value was very limited.  Therefore, the exclusion was proper.

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