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Employer’s Statements That Employee Driver Failed To Follow Safety Protocols Found To Be Admissible Evidence In Motor Vehicle Accident Case

By on July 9, 2021 in Evidence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Ahmed Hassan was injured in a motor vehicle accident in which he was rear-ended by defendant Roland Williams who was driving a tractor-trailer for defendant ABF Freight System.  The case was tried before a jury and the jury found both drivers negligent but the Plaintiff slightly more so, which resulted in a no-cause judgment in favor of the defendant.  The issue in the published decision in Hassan v. Williams, 467 N.J. Super. 190 (App. Div. 2021) was whether the trial court erroneously excluded statements by ABF officials that Williams could have prevented the accident, he drove recklessly, and he violated ABF safety protocols.

Plaintiff Hassan appealed from the no-cause judgment, arguing that the trial court made a mistake in excluding those statements from being admitted into evidence.

The accident happened on Route 78 at 4:00 in the morning.  Plaintiff Hassan was driving a FedEx tractor trailer when he suddenly felt himself on the ramp, on the side of the road and hitting trees or brushes or whatever.  Defendant Williams said that his vehicle was on cruise control and set at the truck’s pre-set top speed of 62 miles per hour and that all of a sudden the FedEx truck appeared and, while Williams’ instinct was to change lanes, there was a vehicle in the other lane.  Thus, he slammed on his brakes before striking Hassan’s tractor trailer in the rear.

Hassan sued Williams and ABF, claiming that they were negligent and that ABF was vicariously and strictly liable for Williams’ acts.  Hassan claimed that the collision caused a traumatic brain injury, shoulder and wrist injuries, exacerbated a back condition and also alleged cognitive loss, depression and other neurological problems.

Both parties initially viewed the collision as an uncomplicated rear-end hit.  However, then the defendants vigorously contested liability and produced an expert opinion that Hassan caused the accident by cutting in front of Williams at a slow speed from the entrance lane.

Prior to trial, Hassan filed motions in limine to establish the admissibility of statements made by Williams and two other ABF employees.  Hassan sought to introduce Williams’s deposition testimony that Williams did not question why ABM considered disciplining him after the accident.  Hassan also wanted to introduce into evidence ABF’s post-accident letter (from Chuck Witter) firing Williams which stated that “the Safety Department in Fort Smith, AR has determined that your accident . . . has been judged preventable.  This is to advise you that you are hereby discharged due to your recklessness resulting in a serious preventable accident while on duty.” 

Hassan wanted to introduce certain testimony from Mr. Cates, who working in ABF’s safety department, to establish that Williams’ conduct in causing the accident violated ABF’s rules and regulations for its road drivers.  Among other testimony, Cates testified that ABF had concluded that the accident was “preventable.”

At the in limine hearing, the trial court ruled that Cates could describe ABF’s rules and regulations for truck drivers but barred any testimony that in ABF’s opinion, Williams violated these rules.  The court also barred Williams’ statement discussing his own fault or how ABF viewed a rear end collision.  Further, the court barred the letter sent by ABF to Williams, advising of the basis for his termination.  The court found that it was inappropriate to have somebody come in and offer an opinion on the ultimate issue in the case, which is the jury’s determination.

At the end of the trial, the jury found that both Hassan and Williams were negligent and allocated 51% of fault to Hassan.  Because Hassan was found more than 50% negligent, the trial court entered a judgment of no-cause in favor of the defendant.  Hassan then filed a motion for a new trial, which the court denied.  Thereafter, this appeal ensued. 

The Appellate Division reviewed the evidence that the trial court excluded, i.e. Witter’s Discharge Letter, Cate’s deposition excerpts and Williams’ statement about ABF’s approach to rear-end hits.  The Appellate Division found that ABF’s decision to discharge Williams was properly excluded because it was a subsequent remedial measure.  However, the balance of the discharge letter and Cate’s and Williams’ statements should have been analyzed as statements of a party opponent and, as such, they were admissible.

The Appellate Division found that the trial court erred in concluding that the Cate’s deposition excerpts and statements in the discharge letter usurped the jury’s function by addressing an “ultimate issue.”  The Court pointed out the testimony in the form of an opinion or inference otherwise admissible is not objectionable because it embraces an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact.

The Appellate Division found that the trial court mischaracterized the statements as “ultimate issue” evidence because neither Cates nor Witter said how the case should be decided, nor did they offer the legal conclusion that Williams acted negligently.  Rather, Cates testified as to facts that Williams deviated from ABF’s training and protocols and concluded that in his safety evaluation, the accident was “preventable.”  The Appellate Division pointed out that “preventable” did not mean the same as “negligent.”

Further, the Court noted that even if the statements were deemed to embrace the ultimate issue, other rules of evidence do permit the introduction of a statement of a party opponent.  The trial court should have considered their admissibility on that basis.  Further, the statement that Williams made was admissible because it was his own statement as a party opponent.

Since the Appellate Division found that Cate’s and Witter’s statements were admissible, as well as William’s statement, the matter was remanded back to the trial court to determine whether the limited use of the statements can be adequately addressed in jury instructions.  The Appellate Division concluded that the excluded statements had significant value and were relevant to the jury’s determination whether Williams exercised reasonable care under the circumstances.

Finally, the Appellate Division concluded that the trial court’s order barring this evidence was “clearly capable of producing an unjust result,” which compelled a new trial.  The excluded evidence may have convinced the jury to assign slightly more responsibility to Williams and slightly less to Hassan, which may have resulted in a verdict in Hassan’s favor.  Thus, the Appellate Division found that Hassan was entitled to a new trial and reversed and remanded for a new trial.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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