One of the trickier areas of evidence law involves how courts handle second-hand information that a party to litigation wishes to use “to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” For example, the plaintiff in a personal injury trial wants to prove that the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injury by having Witness A testify that she heard from a friend that the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injury. Because Witness A has no first-hand knowledge of the truth of her friend’s claim, it is inherently unreliable to prove anything more than that the defendant was rumored to have been responsible—a fact that may have relevance to other issues in the case but doesn’t actually prove that the defendant caused the injury.
The law treats so-called hearsay evidence as inherently unreliable, and therefore by default excludes it from consideration by a jury or judge as they examine the facts of the case unless an exception applies or the statement is not hearsay by definition. In general the rules and applications surrounding hearsay are rather complex. Here are some example rules that can be important in a personal injury case:
- Showing inconsistencies in testimony. If a witness has testified to certain facts, statements that are inconsistent with that testimony are, by definition, not hearsay. The idea here is that the truth of a witness’s statements can be brought into doubt using contradictory statements. For example, the passenger of a defendant in a car accident case told a police investigator that the defendant driver was looking at her car radio when the accident happened, but at trial the defendant testifies that she was fully alert. On cross-examination the defendant’s statement to the police could be admitted to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the witness’s initial testimony.
- Statements made by a party. Someone who is actually a party to the trial can have their words come back to haunt them. Social media posts offer a good example. If after the accident the defendant rushed to post something about the accident on Facebook, that post is, by definition, not hearsay.
- Excited utterances. A witness in court can testify that she heard a bystander shout, “Wow, that red car ran the light!” just before the accident in which the defendant allegedly ran a stop light. Even if the bystander isn’t available to testify, the witness’s testimony can be used to show that a red car (i.e., the defendant’s car) ran a red.
- Reputation as to character. Where relevant, statements about a person’s reputation can have important influence over the outcome of a case. If a defendant is known to have temper problems, that can be germane to a road rage incident. The hearsay rule would allow someone who isn’t personally familiar with the defendant’s anger management troubles testify along the lines of, “I’ve heard he’s got a short fuse when he’s driving.”
- Statements against interest. A statement is admissible if it was against the speaker’s interests to make it. Examples of this sort of statement include statements that would have a financial consequence (“I lied to my boss this morning.”) or could subject the speaker to legal liability (“I left my dog off leash and she bit that kid.”). The idea behind this exception is that the statement is so clearly against the speaker’s interest that he or she wouldn’t be likely to make it unless it was true.
These examples only scratch the surface of what is ultimately a rather technical and nuanced area of the law. Experienced trial lawyers use the rules of hearsay evidence to help clients build the best case and prevent their opponents from introducing factual inaccuracies. For over 45 years the attorneys at Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez have represented clients in the Las Vegas area in personal injury cases. Call us today for a free attorney consultation at 702-388-4476 or request a call through our website.