Law 101: The Hearsay Rule

This post is part of a new series that we’ll be sharing occasionally. Instead of focusing on a subject specifically tied to personal injury law, this series will deal with more general legal topics including legal process and courtroom rules. We believe these posts will help people understand the legal system and leave readers better prepared for being involved in a civil lawsuit in California, including working with our San Francisco and Sacramento personal injury law firm and our Northern California small business attorney. In this post, we focus on the hearsay rule and what it means for the admissibility of statements made outside of court.

Hearsay Defined
Many people have a passing familiarity with the term “hearsay,” perhaps from legal television shows. Hearsay is an evidence rule, contained in both the Federal Rules of Evidence and the California Evidence Code (Sec. 1200). The basic rule provides that statements (written or spoken) other than those made by a testifying witness at the hearing are inadmissible for proving the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. The basic concerns are that these statements were not made under oath, the judge/jury cannot observe the speaker (aka the “declarant”) for signs of honesty, and the opposing side was not able to cross-examine the declarant. As such, hearsay is thought to be unreliable.

Hearsay and “The Truth of the Matter”
Hearsay is only inadmissible when offered “for the truth of the matter asserted.” For example, a witness’s statement at the scene of a crash that “He drove through that red light!” cannot be used to show the defendant did indeed drive through the red light. However, such a statement may be admitted for other purposes such as, among other reasons: A declarant’s state of mind (ex. a shooter who says “I am Superman” may not be sane); Time/place and the presence of the speaker (ex. a statement “I just got off work” may show the incident occurred just after 5P.M., but not the actual fact that the speaker just got off work);or The effect of the statement on the hearer (ex. “He took my purse!” might be offered to show why the listener chased and tackled someone). Additionally, words with legal effect, such as the defendant in a business case accepting a contract term, are not hearsay.

Hearsay Exceptions
Even when a statement is hearsay and is being offered for the truth of the matter asserted, it may still be admissible under a hearsay exception (see California Evidence Code 1220-1380). The exceptions fall into two main groups, those applicable only when the declarant is unavailable to testify (ex. Statements made just prior to the speaker’s death; Prior testimony; Statements against a speaker’s interest) and those admissible regardless of availability (ex. Business records; Learned treatises; Statements about reputation for character).

The precise list of exceptions is a bit different in the state and federal courts. The Federal Rules also include a general “catchall” or “residual” exception (Rule 807), which makes hearsay admissible when it has sufficient guarantees of trustworthiness, is the best evidence available on a point, and admitting it serves the interests of justice. California does not have this “catchall” exception, so it is available to parties in federal courts but not in California state courts. However, the catchall is worth mention because it explains the general theory behind the exceptions overall – hearsay is usually barred because it is unreliable but the exceptions make it admissible in circumstances that suggest the statements are indeed trustworthy.

Using the Rules of Evidence in our Northern California Civil Court Cases
Evidence is a complex legal concept and the hearsay rule is one of its most complex components. An understanding of the rules of evidence is one of the reasons it is important to hire legal counsel. Whether it is in a personal injury or business case, our firm’s San Francisco civil claims lawyer uses the rules of evidence to tell our client’s story and to prevent the other side from using impermissible evidence.

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See Related Blog Posts:
Spoliation: An Evidentiary Rule and a Commitment to Truth

Tragic Train Crash in Spain and the Role of Accident Reconstruction Experts in California Accident Law

(Picture by Bruce Bortin)