Social Security Administration Determinations and Their Admissibility (or Lack Thereof) as Evidence in New Jersey
Many times while litigating personal injury cases, the issue of a determination made by the Social Security Administration comes into play. The plaintiff’s counsel wants to introduce the decision as evidence of the client’s injury, while the defense wants the information excluded. The question then arises: Are these determinations admissible as evidence in New Jersey courts? A 2013 Appellate Court decision suggests the contrary.
In a favorable decision to the Defense Bar in Villanueva v. Zimmer, A-1587-11 T3 (decided on June 21, 2013), the Appellate Court held that in a personal injury action, a plaintiff cannot introduce evidence of (or testify regarding) a Social Security Administration (hereinafter “SSA”) Determination that the individual is disabled and unable to work to further support their claim.
Plaintiff Villanueva was involved in a typical three-vehicle rear-end collision. She was able to drive away from the scene of the accident. Approximately four months later, she began treatment for back and neck pain. Eventually, a specialist in interventional pain and minimally invasive spine surgery recommended spinal fusion therapy to stabilize the plaintiff’s spine and relieve her back pain. A forensic epidemiologist also opined that the accident caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In the meantime, the SSA issued a “Notice of Award”, finding that the plaintiff became disabled as of the date of the accident. The award noted the determination was subject to review at least every three years and was subject to change.
At the time of trial, the plaintiff testified that she did not return to work because of her pain and inability to perform her job functions as a result of the accident. Three doctors testified for the defense at trial, each finding no objective evidence of injuries resulting from the accident.
Prior to trial, the defense counsel filed a Motion in Limine to prevent the plaintiff from introducing any evidence or testimony pertaining to the SSA Disability Determination. The plaintiff argued that she was entitled to introduce the fact that she had been declared disabled with the SSA. Further, she wanted that determination declared presumptive evidence of disability and her inability to work as a consequence of the accident. The trial judge disagreed with the plaintiff’s position.
Ultimately, the jury found that the plaintiff did not sustain an injury as a proximate result of the collision and judgment was entered for the defendant. The decision led the plaintiff to file an appeal.
On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling that in a personal injury action, a plaintiff cannot introduce evidence of (or testify regarding) a SSA Determination that the individual is disabled and unable to work. The court reasoned that the SSA Determination is hearsay and N.J.R.E. 803(c)(8) does authorize its admission as a hearsay exception. Further, the lack of a meaningful adversarial process with respect to the Determination renders the SSA’s conclusions on the issue of the plaintiff’s injuries and disability unreliable in the court’s eyes.