Ninth Circuit Rules in Favor of Admitting Statements of a Decedent at Trial
Objection, hearsay! We hear that term “hearsay” all the time—in the movies, on T.V., and in real life court proceedings. The idea behind the “hearsay” rule, which prevents certain statements and documents from being admitted as evidence, is that not everything people say is reliable or even truthful (imagine that). As straightforward as that rule may sound, it’s much harder to apply—and is the bane of all law students taking an evidence course for the first time.
Judge Noonan, writing for the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, just clarified an issue on hearsay, the so-called state of mind exception, in a case titled Wagner v. County of Maricopa (a case that originated in Phoenix, AZ).
In Wagner, the Plaintiff wanted to introduce various statements made by the decedent (prior to death obviously) about his impression of being imprisoned for a few days. The decedent was diagnosed with various mental issues, including being disoriented, paranoid and psychotic. He had wandered away from home and was arrested after being mistaken for a burglar and then resisting arrest. In jail, he was placed in isolation, after psychological examination, and then forced to change from civilian clothes to jail-issue clothes, which included wearing pink underwear (?). The decedent resisted the clothes change and was forcibly undressed, and then dressed in jail garb. Due to his psychological condition, decedent thought that he was going to be raped by the officers and was traumatized by the experience.
Decedent’s mother bailed him out of prison after a few days and was later involved in a minor car accident with decedent in her car. Decedent was told that the police would be called to the scene of the accident. The decedent, in a state of panic, then ran for 4 or 5 miles away from the car accident where he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
The decedent’s family sued and wanted to have decedent’s sister testify to the statements decedent made about his impression of being imprisoned and being forced to change clothes. The statements were meant to establish the decedent’s state-of-mind about being imprisoned. The statements themselves, that decedent was being raped by the officers, was obviously false and not meant to prove they were true.
The trial court excluded the testimony on the theory that the statements were hearsay and could not be used to prove the truth of what was said. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, saying that statements such as these made by the decedent, were not hearsay. Why? Because they are not used to prove they are true—no one was asserting the truth of the statements. Rather the statements were being used to establish the decedent’s state of mind at that time. And statements that would otherwise be hearsay are admissible into evidence when they go to the state of mind of a decedent.
This state-of-mind ruling provides a great exception to the hearsay rule, especially in the world of Trust and Will litigation, where a decedent’s state of mind is almost always a central issue to California Trust and Will contests. As long as you aren’t using the decedent’s statements to prove what they said was truthful, only that is establishes their state-of-mind and explains their actions, then the exception applies.