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Valedez v. Watkins Motor Lines, et al.: Hearsay in Car Accident Lawsuits

Our Boston car accident lawyers know rules of evidence often seem counterintuitive and can be very confusing to clients.

12057_dangerous_truck.jpgIn Valedez v. Watkins Motor Lines, et al., an appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit, two men were working as vehicle delivery drivers. Their job was to go to a car auction house and drive the purchased vehicles back to El Paso.

When the workers arrived at the auction house in St Louis, they picked up three vehicles. One of the drivers drove a minivan that was towing a small SUV on a dolly. The other driver was in a pickup truck that had been purchased by their employer. According to testimony for the plaintiff, the drivers had spliced wires on the minivan’s electrical system and placed a tow light package on the back of the vehicle on the dolly.

While driving back from the auction, the two drivers were preparing to exit the highway when a semi-tractor trailer being driven by the defendant hit the driver of the minivan from behind. The minivan and the small SUV were pushed off the road and onto the shoulder. The driver of the semi truck claimed that the plaintiff was stopped on the side of the road, and he did not see the tow lights. The plaintiff and his coworker testified that they did have lights properly set up and were moving at approximately 55mph when the car accident happened. The plaintiff suffered serious injures to his neck and back.

The question before the appeals court had to do with whether or not certain portions of the accident report were properly admitted into evidence at the trial. Normally, an accident report is not admissible because it is hearsay. Hearsay is defined as an out of court statement made for the truth of the matter of asserted. This is the definition given in the Federal Rules of Evidence. In Massachusetts, there are no codified rules of evidence, so everyone generally used the Massachusetts Handbook of Evidence by Paul J. Liacos in place of a statute.

There are, however, certain exceptions to the rule prohibiting hearsay. One of the main exceptions is that hearsay may be used for the purposes of impeachment, which is not technically being offered for the truth of the matter asserted. It is being offered to show that someone else, or some other piece of evidence lacks credibility.

In Valedez, the defendant wanted to introduce portions of the car accident report to show where it indicated that the plaintiff’s vehicle was stopped at the time of the accident. The reason the report was necessary was because the reporting officer was unavailable for trial. The judge allowed a portion of the report be heard by the jury under grounds that the plaintiff had “opened the door” through his line of questioning. The jury found for the defendant and the plaintiff appealed the verdict.

On appeal, the court ultimately concluded that the attorneys for the defendant went too far with their questioning and that the evidence should not have been presented to the jury. The case was remanded for a new trial.

If you are injured in an accident in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment: 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

Valedez v. Watkins Motor Lines, et al. July 11, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit

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Truck Driver Charged After Fatal Tracy Morgan Accident, June 12, 2014, Boston Car Accident Lawyer Blog