New Jersey Appellate Division Permits a Driver and Employer’s Determination of Improper Actions as Admissible Evidence
In Hassan v. Williams, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey found that a trial court improperly excluded multiple documents, including the determination letter written by an employer that its driver acted improperly, as well as the letter written by that driver about his own conduct.
At the trial level, these documents were excluded as the Court held they went to the “ultimate issue” of the case stating that the driver was “reckless” and that the accident was “preventable.” However, the Appellate Division held that nothing contained in the documents offered an opinion as to the ultimate legal question over whether the driver was legally negligent. “Rather, Cates testified, as a factual matter, that Williams deviated from ABF’s training and protocols.” The Court continued, “‘preventable’ evidently is not the same as negligent.” The Court also held that it was not clear that reckless was meant to mean anything more than its common everyday meaning and/or as defined by a collective bargaining agreement.
As the trial level jury decision apportioned fault 51% to 49%, the matter was remanded to the trial level as this determination had a likelihood to change the result.
Here, the Court recognized that while it is the jury’s duty to reach the ultimate issue in each case and that evidence and witnesses may not usurp that duty, evidence or testimony that does not explicitly state how a legal issue should ultimately be determined is not ultimate issue evidence. In addition, the Court held that even if this had been evidence that touched on the ultimate issue, a statement made by the driver would be admissible as a statement of a party opponent regardless.
This is a sharp reminder that any documents a business creates in the investigation of an accident can certainly be utilized against it at the ultimate trial, and in some cases be the ultimate swing in a decision of a jury.
Thank you to Ryan Geib for his contribution to this post. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Tom Bracken.