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Miller v. Keating

February 11, 1985


On Appeal from the Judgment and Order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C.No. 82-2784.

Author: Stern


BEFORE: ALDISERT, Chief Judge, BECKER, Circuit Judge, and STERN, District Judge*fn*

STERN, District Judge:

The district court admitted into evidence a statement, made by an unidentified declarant at the scene of an automobile accident, amounting to an accusation that the accident was the fault of plaintiff Carol Miller. The district judge admitted the statement as "res gestae, " without making reference to any of the hearsay exceptions in Fed. R. Evid. 803, or any findings of fact on the issue of admissibility. Fed. R. Evid. 104(a). We conclude that the district judge erred.


On January 18, 1982, Carol Miller was driving her white Ford LTD east on U.S. Route 22, a limited access highway, near Easton, Pennsylvania. She carried a passenger named Annette Vay. It is undisputed that Miller and Vay were traveling behind a UPS truck and that both vehicles switched into the lefthand lane to avoid a stalled vehicle in the righthand lane near the 25th Street exit ramp. It is also undisputed that, soon thereafter, the Miller car was struck from behind by defendant Texaco's tractor-trailer driven by co-defendant Lawrence Keating. The force of the collision propelled the Miller car first into the side of a car stopped in the righthand lane and then into the rear of the UPS truck. Mrs. Miller sustained serious injuries in the collision. The driver of the car stopped in the righthand lane was Kenneth Parris. His wife, Elfriede Parris, was a passenger.

One dispute at trial was over the amount of time that elapsed between the moment when Mrs. Miller pulled into the lefthand lane and the moment when her car was struck from the rear. Another conflict focused on whether the Miller car was stopped behind the UPS truck or was still moving when it was hit by the Texaco tractor-trailer.

Both Mrs. Miller and her passenger, Annette Vay, testified at trial that Miller had completely stopped her car before being rammed by the Texaco truck. App. at 80, 21-22. According to Vay, the Miller car was stopped in the lefthand lane for "a few seconds" before the accident. App. at 26. Later, she testified that the time period could have been longer than "a second or two." App. at 43. Lawrence Keating testified, however, that he was driving his Texaco tractor-trailer in the lefthand lane, slowing down in order to stop, and there was no vehicle between him and the UPS truck. App. at 218, 241. He testified that he never saw the Miller car pull in front of him, and the first time he saw it was when it was in his lane. App. at 245, 246, 247. He said he saw only a "white blur" half or three-quarters of the way into his lane. App. at 248. He claimed that by the time he saw the Miller car in his lane, he was too close to it to avoid the collision. App. at 219-20.

There were other inconsistencies at trial of less relevance to the issue here, but several deserve mention because they illustrate the profusion of accounts before the jury. Mrs. Vay, who testified at length at the trial, had previously told police officer Young that she could not tell him what had happened, "that she did not know." App. at 52. The Parrises, who were stopped in the right lane, both testified that the Texaco truck had come to a full stop in the left lane behind the Parris car (and two car lengths behind the UPS truck, according to Mr. Parris), before the Miller car pulled in front of it. App. at 186-87, 203. However, both Keating and the UPS driver, Neil Rasmussen, Jr., who was watching out of his side view mirror, depicted the Texaco truck as moving continuously toward the rear of the UPS truck. The UPS driver said, "it looked like I had better give Mr. Texaco all of the room he can have, you know, for stopping." App. at 57. And Keating said he was making "a gradual rolling stop." App. at 219.

There is also a dispute as to when the Parris car arrived alongside the Miller car. Vay and Miller both testified that the Parris car pulled up next to the Miller car during the few seconds it was stopped before being rammed by the Texaco truck. App. at 23, 24, 81. But the Parrises testified that they were stopped in the right lane for "several minutes" or "two minutes" before the accident. App. at 186, 203.

It is the testimony of the Parrises about an incident occurring after the accident that gives rise to this appeal. After being hit in the left side, Mr. Parris pulled his car over. He testified that he left his car, comforted one of the victims in the Miller car, then walked to the rear of the Miller car where his wife was writing down the license plate number of the Miller car. App. at 167-88. At that point, a man approached and said, "the bastard tried to cut in." App. at 168. In somewhat inconsistent testimony, Mrs. Parris stated that she and her husband "were running towards the car, and I heard this person that was driving -- running towards us -- . . . and said the s.o.b. or some words like that, tried to cut in." App. at 197. Mr. Parris could not identify the declarant beyond saying that he was a white male. App. at 168. Mrs. Parris could do no better. App. at 197. There is no indication in the record why she thought the declarant was a driver or which vehicle he drove. Mr. Parris testified that he did not know what vehicle the declarant was driving. App. at 168.

Over objections, the trial judge allowed the Parrises to relate their versions of the declaration to the jury. He admitted the statements as "res gestae." App. at 168. Parenthetically, we note that this terminology is inappropriate. As the trial judge implicitly recognized in his opinion denying post-trial relief, there is no such exception to the prohibition against hearsay. App. at 360-62. If admissible, the declaration must qualify under one of the genuine exceptions to the hearsay rule. The old catchall, "res gestae," is no longer part of the law of evidence.*fn1

As the trial judge also recognized, the excited utterance exception of Fed. R. Evid. 803(2) provides the most likely basis for admitting the statement. The question before us, therefore, is whether that statement by the unknown declarant should have been admitted under Fed. R. Evid. 803(2), which defines "excited utterance" as "[a] statement relating to a startling event or ...

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