You’re Fired! Court Weighs Admissibility Of Termination Letter (NJ)
In Hassan v. Williams and ABF Freight, Inc., the plaintiff truck driver was injured when his tractor trailer was rear-ended by the tractor driven by defendant Roland Williams. Plaintiff brought suit alleging negligence and negligence per se for his injuries. Defendants argued that plaintiff merged onto the highway from the entrance at a slow speed cutting in front of defendant. Following trial, the jury issued a verdict finding plaintiff 51% at fault, and the court issued a judgment of no cause. Plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, plaintiff asserted that the trial court committed various errors requiring a new trial. In part, plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in barring the admission of evidence pertaining to ABF Freight’s termination of the defendant driver following the accident and the post-accident investigation which preceded his termination on the basis it was evidence of a subsequent remedial measure.
Under New Jersey Rules of Evidence Rule 407, “Evidence of remedial measures taken after an event is not admissible to prove that the event was caused by negligence or culpable conduct. However, evidence of such subsequent remedial conduct may be admitted as to other issues.”
With Rule 407 in mind, the Appellate Division found that while the portion of the letter terminating Williams was inadmissible as a remedial measure, the remainder of the letter which described the post-accident investigation was admissible. The Appellate Division noted that the termination and investigation are distinguishable, as the investigation is conducted to investigate the accident’s cause and is not a remedial measure by itself. In other words, the investigation is conducted, in part, to determine what remedial measures, if any, are required. On that basis, the Appellate Division determined that the letter was admissible so long as the portion describing the defendant’s termination was redacted. The Appellate Division also found that this evidence was relevant as it was likely to aid the jury in assessing what safety protocols were in place and broken by the defendant driver.
Ultimately, the Appellate Division granted a new trial due to the trial court’s ruling on the letter and other related evidence. Given that plaintiff was initially found 51% at fault, the admission of that evidence could have led the jury to come to a different conclusion.
Thanks to Benjamin Ferrell for his contribution to this post. Please contact Heather Aquino with any questions.