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New Jersey Appellate Division Rules that an Employer’s Statements about an Employee Driver’s Failure to Follow Safety Protocols Constitutes Admissible Evidence in a Motor Vehicle Accident Case

May 13, 2021 - News by Christopher A. Gulla

On April 13, 2021, the New Jersey Appellate Division reached a decision in the matter of Hassan v. Williams, No. A-3336-18. This decision, which is important in the context of commercial transportation and motor vehicle accident lawsuits in the State of New Jersey, is summarized below.

Plaintiff Ahmed Hassan filed a lawsuit claiming personal injuries sustained in a motor vehicle crash that was alleged to have been caused by the negligence of the Defendants. At the time of the motor vehicle accident at issue, Plaintiff’s vehicle was rear ended by a tractor trailer being operated by Defendant driver Roland Williams. Notably, the Defendant driver was driving this tractor trailer within the scope of his employment with separate Defendant ABF Freight System.

A trial in the Ocean County Superior Court resulted in a jury finding that both drivers were responsible for the crash. However, because the jury found Plaintiff to be slightly more responsible for the accident, a no-cause judgment was entered for the Defendants.

Prior to the jury verdict in favor of the Defendants, Plaintiff unsuccessfully sought to introduce into evidence a post-accident termination letter firing the Defendant driver that was authored by an ABF official. The post-accident termination letter stated in part, “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. In accordance…this discharge is for recklessness resulting in a serious preventable accident.” In addition to the post-accident termination letter, Plaintiff was also refused the right to introduce into evidence sworn testimony by an ABF safety department official specifically opining that the Defendant driver had deviated from ABF safety training procedures for truck drivers.

During a motion-in-limine hearing held before the trial court’s decision to exclude the aforementioned evidence, the trial court ruled that ABF officials could describe ABF’s rules and regulations for truck drivers, but could not offer any “ultimate opinion” testimony as to whether their employee driver violated those regulations. The court also barred the post-accident termination letter in its entirety. While Plaintiff argued that this letter was an admission against interest, the trial court disagreed and ruled that the letter was a determination of fault that was ultimately within the province of the jury. In doing so, the trial court also noted that both the author of the post-accident termination letter and the ABF representative who gave the opinionated testimony lacked personal knowledge of the accident.

On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the trial court erroneously excluded from evidence the post-accident termination letter and the statements by the ABF representative concerning the Defendant driver’s breach of safety procedures. The Appellate Division agreed that the trial court had erred in excluding the statements and reversed the judgment, remanding the case for a new trial. The Appellate Division rejected the trial court’s determination that the statements constituted “ultimate issue” evidence, noting that the company officials’ statements did not argue how Plaintiff’s claims should be decided or otherwise offer a legal conclusion that the Defendant driver’s conduct was negligent. The Appellate Court also ruled that ABF officials’ determination that the accident was “preventable” did not automatically mean that the Defendant driver was negligent or liable for the crash. Instead, the court viewed the statements as probative evidence of fact that the Defendant driver failed to follow his training and company safety policies leading up to the accident. The Appellate Court further held that the statements constituted admissible hearsay under the party opponent exception, as the statements were made by ABF officials in their official capacity.

In spite of the Appellate Court’s ruling to remand the case for the purpose of admitting the evidence described above, the Appellate Division did confirm that evidence of the Defendant driver’s termination was properly excluded from evidence as a “remedial measure” since Plaintiff sought to use the driver’s termination as evidence of his negligence or culpable conduct.