When attempting to prove a case during a trial, what matters most is the evidence. But, what exactly is evidence? According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word evidence means, “the available body of facts on information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.”
Evidence is more than just one fact. The word, “evidence,” is all encompassing and includes information that can indicate whether a person had the ability and presence of mind to actually commit an act that they have been accused of committing. When it comes to personal injury cases, evidence is the deciding factor on if a plaintiff was actually injured and whether the defendant caused that injury.
For those reasons, the crux of any personal injury case is the evidence that is allowed into the courtroom as well as kept out.
What follows is a summary of what to know about evidence in a personal injury trial taking place in Washington D.C.
D.C. Rules of Civil Procedure
The Rules of Evidence cover the plaintiff's burden of proof, the admissibility of evidence, the relevance of evidence, the weight of evidence as well as the sufficiency of what should be admitted into the court record. The rules that surround evidence are incredibly nuanced but below is a summary of some of the rules and how they apply in a courtroom.
In Washington D.C., the rules of evidence are governed by Rule 43 of the D.C. Rules of Civil Procedure. Additionally, while the Federal Rules of Evidence have not been formally adopted or incorporated by the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, the District of Columbia's controlling case law and statutes on evidence closely model the Federal Rules.
Rule 401 of the Federal Rules of Evidence discusses a test that balances the relevance of evidence. A court will deem evidence to be relevant if it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and the fact is of consequence in determining the action. Whether evidence has a tendency to make a given fact more or less probable is to be determined by the court in the light of reason, experience, scientific principles and the other testimony offered in the case.
The relevance of evidence is extremely important when arguing a case in court because the rules state that all relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by law. Evidence that is not relevant is not admissible.
In general, evidence that is usually deemed inadmissible by law is:
- Evidence that does nothing more than waste time. When arguing a case, efficiency is key. Presenting multiple witnesses with the intention of coming to the same conclusion time and time again is an example of wasting time. Such evidence will likely be deemed to be inadmissible.
- Evidence that is hearsay. Hearsay is one of the most nuanced types of evidence that can come up during a trial. The issue of hearsay is raised during witness testimony when a witness attempts to offer an out-of-court statement to prove the truth of the matter asserted. For example, if a witness claims another witness said the defendant hit the plaintiff with a car and the plaintiff's attorney wishes to use that testimony to prove that the defendant did in fact hit the plaintiff with his car, that testimony is considered to be hearsay and will likely be excluded unless it falls into one of the many exceptions reserved for hearsay.
- Evidence that is considered to be unfairly prejudicial. This includes evidence that attempts to elicit a reaction from the jury without providing material information.
- Evidence that is considered to be misleading. If an attorney attempts to distract from the main issue in a case by presenting “evidence” that is immaterial, it will likely be inadmissible.
- When a plaintiff's attorney attempts to offer evidence in order to prove that a defendant has a trait that is in line with the type of person that would commit an act that gave rise to the litigation, that evidence is considered to be character evidence and is usually inadmissible unless the defendant was the person that first introduced it into evidence.
Direct or Circumstantial Evidence
Evidence presented for admission can be either direct or circumstantial in nature.
Direct evidence is evidence that, if accepted as true, necessarily establishes the point for which it is offered.
An example of direct evidence would be in a personal injury case a witness providing testimony as to what they saw and/or heard. The witness stating that they saw the defendant hit the plaintiff with an object would be direct evidence that the act that gave rise to the litigation took place.
Circumstantial evidence is evidence that, even if fully credited, may nevertheless fail to support the point in question, simply because an alternative explanation seems probable.
An example of circumstantial evidence would be the plaintiff's attorney providing a security photo to the court which showed the defendant being in the same location of the plaintiff at the time the injury occurred. The defendant may very well have been in the same location as the plaintiff at the same time the injury occurred but it does not, by itself, prove that the defendant caused the injury.
Types of Evidence
Generally, there are four types of evidence: Real Evidence (think of tangible items); Demonstrative (think of a reenacting video); Documentary (a document or photo); Testimonial (a witness's account at trial).
Real, physical, or tangible, evidence is an item or items capable of being touched or felt and have a real substance. For example, imagine a personal injury case where the plaintiff was injured when the shovel of a nearby tractor suddenly fell off, causing the shovel to pin down the plaintiff's foot. At trial, the plaintiff introduces the shovel into evidence in order to show the trier of fact the actual size and magnitude of the tractor part that caused his injury. In this situation, the shovel is an example of real or tangible evidence.
Demonstrative evidence may be used to describe or explain items that are difficult to verbalize.
Like, demonstrative evidence, documentary evidence involves physical objects, like documents or recordings. The difference, however, between demonstrative and documentary evidence is that with the latter, the objects are the carriers of the evidence, not the actual evidence. For example, if a dvd recording is shown of an act occurring, it would be documentary since the dvd is not the actual evidence.
A witness account by way of testimony can be powerful in a courtroom setting. Generally, every person is presumed to be competent to be a witness. Rule § 14–301 states that except as otherwise provided by law, a person is not incompetent to testify in a civil action or proceeding by reason of his being a party thereto or interested in the result thereof. If otherwise competent to testify, he is competent to give evidence on his own behalf and competent to give evidence on behalf of any other party to the action or proceeding. Further, Rule § 14–305 states that no person is incompetent to testify, in either civil or criminal proceedings, by reason of his having been convicted of a criminal offense.
Witnesses can testify to many different things at trial but in order to do so, they must have personal knowledge of the matter. In other words, if the witness is not an expert (different rules apply), they may only testify about things they have personally seen, heard or sensed themselves. The witness is not permitted to guess the intent of another person.
Expert witnesses are held to a different standard than lay witnesses. Expert witnesses have specialized knowledge and are usually called to testify to assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue. Two cases, Frye v. United States and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceutical, Inc., established the guidelines for which the testimony of an expert is found to be admissible for its reliability or relevance.
The Daubert standard considers the following factors:
(1) whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested;
(2) whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication;
(3) its known or potential error rate;
(4) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation; and
(5) whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.
A court applying the Frye standard must determine whether or not the method by which that evidence was obtained was generally accepted by experts in the particular field in which it belongs.
When choosing a standard to follow for the admissibility of expert testimony, states are permitted to choose to follow Frye, Daubert, or a combination of the two.
76% of the country has chosen to follow the Daubert standard while 18% follow the Frye standard. Washington D.C. falls within the 18% as seen in Bahura v. S.E.W. Investors. Therefore, for an expert to be permitted to provide testimony in a personal injury case taking place in Washington D.C., a court will have to decide if the procedure, technique or principles in question are generally accepted by a meaningful proportion of the relevant scientific community.
Personal injuries are never fun. The injury itself is painful and the recovery process is usually tedious. Adding a lawsuit to the mix can be overwhelming if you do not have highly skilled and competent representation.
If you have been injured due to another's negligence, please do not hesitate to contact the law firm of Gilman & Bedigian today. Their dedicated staff will make sure that you are in the best position to receive just compensation while helping to put your injury behind you.