Wednesday, November 27, 2013

West Virginia's Dead Man's Statue is Buried

Earlier this year the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals invalidated the long standing and often-criticized Dead Man’s Statute, a statutory rule of evidence that prevented testimony against a deceased’s estate. Litigators invoked the rule when an interested party attempted to testify about past personal transactions with the deceased. Courts have interpreted these terms differently since the enactment of the rule in the mid-nineteenth century, but generally, an interested party is one that has a personal interest in the outcome of the litigation,3 and personal transactions are any method that derives information from another.

The Supreme Court of Appeals invalidated the rule in State Farm v. Prinz. Prinz involved an attempt by the estate of a passenger killed in a car accident to recover from the umbrella insurance policy of the driver Piper’s grandparents, but there was a question as to Piper’s residence at the time of the accident. If Piper lived with his grandparents, the policy covered the incident; if he lived at home, it did not. At trial, the estate of the passenger introduced considerable evidence that Piper lived with his grandparents, but the court granted the estate’s motion to exclude testimony that Piper lived with his parents. The jury ultimately determined that Piper lived with his parents.

On appeal, the Court noted the many criticisms of the Dead Man’s Statute while explaining past application of the law in West Virginia. Then the Court recognized the rule-making authority granted to the Court by the state constitution. The Court further explained that although the West Virginia Rules of Evidence authorizes legislative statutes that address evidentiary matters, the Court still maintains authority to review a particular statute to determine its continued validity. The Court conclusively found that the Dead Man Statute conflicts with the constitutional rule-making authority of the Court, and invalidated the rule.

Ancient English common law rules prohibited a party in any lawsuit, not just lawsuits involving past transactions with a deceased person, from testifying on their own behalf, or compelling an adversary to testify, because the courts considered juries incompetent to assess the credibility of witnesses. Later legal scholarship questioned this assumption, however, and legislatures began to repeal the disqualification. Dead Man’s Statutes garnered support as the courts and legislatures began to repeal the common law disqualification in the nineteenth century to favor jury assessment of witness credibility. Supporters’ rationale was that even though the legal system was moving toward jury assessment, the estate of a deceased person still needed extra protections, so interested parties should not be allowed to testify to an issue that may otherwise be contradicted by the deceased’s testimony. In essence, courts and legislatures thought that the temptation of an interested party to testify falsely was too great to allow a surviving party to testify against the estate of the deceased.

Courts trust the jury to assess the credibility of testimony in other situations, but the Dead Man’s Statute inexplicably prevents this task of the jury. The Statute sometimes prevents an honest claimant from using testimony that is necessary to prove a claim. For example, the rule prevented the defendant’s testimony about the driving behavior of the deceased in a wrongful death suit, which effectively prevented the defendant from giving his side of the story. The rule also prevented the use of a plaintiff housekeeper’s testimony regarding an oral contract between herself and her deceased employer, and thereby rendering her unable to obtain compensation for years of services. Because of the potential injustices and inefficiencies, the majority of jurisdictions has repealed the law in some way, and have allowed juries to evaluate the credibility of witnesses when testifying against a deceased person’s estate.

In its discussion of the effects of the invalidation, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals cautioned that other evidence and testimony must still be admissible under the Rules of Evidence. In his concurrence, Justice Ketchum noted a possible revision to the Rules of Evidence in light of the Court’s holding. He suggested a new hearsay exception that allows testimony about a past statement of the deceased if the judge determines that the deceased made the statement on her own personal knowledge, in good faith, and under circumstances that indicates the statement is trustworthy. In the meantime, he additionally guided judges to assess admissibility of such evidence under the Rules’ “catch-all” provision.

Invalidating the Dead Man’s Statute allows courts to decide which party is honest the same way it does in cases not involving past transactions with someone who is deceased such as oath, cross-examination, and witness demeanor. Now when a claimant has only her own testimony upon which to rely, anachronistic rules will not prevent the claimant from testifying on her own behalf. The abolition of the rule, though, emphasizes the need for experienced attorneys who can expose perjury through cross-examination. These changes in evidentiary rules are welcome, however, as the results will increase the number of cases decided on the merits, and properly allow juries to evaluate the credibility of interested parties’ testimony. 

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