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Appeals Court Clarifies “Hearsay” Exceptions in Accident Case

It is often difficult to reconstruct the events of a motor vehicle accident. If the accident resulted in fatalities, the victims are obviously unavailable to testify. Other accounts may not be considered admissible evidence in court. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed such a case.

Maloof v. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority

In April 2005, a woman boarded an Atlanta para-transit bus in her wheelchair. The bus driver secured the wheelchair to the floor of the bus. Later, as the bus was traveling on the road, the driver suddenly veered into the adjacent lane and had to step on the brakes to avoid a collision with another vehicle. The sudden braking caused the woman to fall out of her wheelchair onto the ground. As a result, the woman’s leg was fractured, and she was rendered immobile for several months until she passed away.

The woman’s estate sued MARTA, the Atlanta public transportation agency responsible for operating the bus. The estate claimed the bus driver had been “negligent in failing to secure the [deceased’s] wheelchair properly and in failing to maintain her lane.” A trial court granted summary judgment to MARTA on both issues.

But, in a decision issued February 24 of this year, the Georgia Court of Appeals partially reversed the trial court’s summary judgment. The appeals court said the negligence claim related to the bus driver’s alleged failure to maintain her lane could proceed to trial, but the claim the driver failed to properly secure the victim’s wheelchair could not. In pretrial discovery, the driver testified the victim had repeatedly declined to wear a shoulder harness that might have protected her from the accident. The estate offered no admissible testimony to contradict this statement.

Before the Court of Appeals, the estate argued the trial judge should have admitted statements made by the victim before her death. These statements were not made under oath, and the judge accordingly treated them as inadmissible hearsay. The Court of Appeals said this was well within the judge’s discretion. There are multiple exceptions to the hearsay rule, but the appeals panel said none applied to this case. In any event, the Court of Appeals noted the statements the estate sought to admit did not address whether the victim “wanted [the bus driver] to secure the shoulder harness upon her,” which was the alleged factual dispute raised by the estate. “Had such statement included this information,” the Court of Appeals noted, “our decision on this issue may very well have been different.”

However, the appeals court did support the estate’s contention that a police report made at the scene of the accident should have been admitted by the trial court. The report contradicted the bus driver’s account of the accident. As with the victim’s statements, the trial judge said the report was inadmissible hearsay. Not so, said the Court of Appeals. Georgia law makes a hearsay exception for “public records” based on matters “personally observed” by a law enforcement or government official. That means the police report was admissible to the extent it relied on the first-person observations of the officer (as opposed to secondhand accounts of what other people might have told the officer). As the trial judge conceded the report, if admissible, creates a factual dispute with respect to the driver’s liability for the accident itself, the Court of Appeals returned the case to the lower court for trial on this issue.