Hearsay is perhaps one of the most common objections heard at trials. It’s also well known to anyone who watches courtroom drama movies or TV shows. But outside the legal profession, hearsay is not well understood—and it can affect your case.
Hearsay means something you heard someone say, which cannot be verified. For example, let’s say a woman and her husband both witness a car accident. The woman is brought in as a witness in court, but the husband is not. If the woman reports what she herself saw, that’s fine. But if she tries to report what her husband saw, it’s hearsay. Her husband isn’t there to affirm or deny what he really said, and the lawyers cannot question him under oath, so the wife’s secondhand report is not allowed as evidence.
This is really the heart of the rule of not allowing hearsay in court. The idea behind our justice system is that all decisions are based on facts, as best as the court can determine them. If secondhand accounts were allowed in court, there would be no way to know if they’re accurate, or if someone is misremembering what another person said. Witnesses could even lie outright about what they heard, and there would be no way to know.
How does the hearsay rule affect my personal injury case?
Witnesses can be crucial to any kind of injury claim, including a car accident, slip and fall, dog bites and product liability cases. But to be useful, a witness needs to be contacted as soon after the accident or injury as possible—while their memory is still fresh. If too much time goes by, witnesses may forget exactly what happened, or even become hard to contact at all. This is when a case is more and more likely to stray into hearsay. This is a serious problem, because if a witness can’t appear in person for a trial, or if their words are no longer credible, their testimony could be completely thrown out by the judge.
The best thing you can do after any accident or injury is to immediately speak to witnesses who saw what happened. Ask for their contact information and give it to your attorney. If you are not able to do this yourself, a good attorney will have an investigative team that can look for witnesses for you.
Are there exceptions where hearsay is allowed?
Yes, but they don’t come up often. Typically secondhand statements are only allowed in court if there is some other reason to believe they are accurate—for example, business records or someone’s last words before they passed away. These exceptions are rare and the judge has a great deal of discretion in when to allow them.
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