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Estate of Hanges v. Metropolitan Property & Casualty Insurance Co.

June 21, 2010

THE ESTATE OF NICK HANGES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
METROPOLITAN PROPERTY & CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal is whether decedent's statements to the police concerning the cause of his automobile accident were admissible under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(6) (Trustworthy Statements by Deceased Declarants).

In the mid-afternoon hours of Sunday, October 31, 2004, decedent Nick J. Hanges was involved in a onecar accident in Clifton, when he crashed his vintage 1974 Triumph TR-6 sports car into an underpass wall. The police responded to the accident. Answering questions posed by a police officer, decedent attributed the cause of the accident to a "phantom vehicle," a blue Corvette that cut him off. After making the statement, decedent passed out and was transported to a hospital. The hospital medical chart reflects that decedent stated that he was cut off by another vehicle. Decedent made a similar statement in a telephone conversation with his psychologist the following day. Upon being discharged from the hospital, decedent was transported to Florida where he received additional medical treatment. In a report to a physician in Florida decedent explained that he had been "involved in an automobile accident on 10-31-04. He was run off the road, [and] hit a cement barrier in a [small sports car]." In late November/early December, decedent returned to New Jersey.

In the interim, an uninsured motorist claim was made under the automobile insurance covering the car decedent drove into the underpass wall. According to an automobile loss notice form dated November 4, 2004 -- four days after the accident -- the accident occurred because the "[a]ccelerator stuck and insured hit the divider." That form makes no mention of a "phantom vehicle," of decedent being "cut-off," or of those events having been the cause of the accident and decedent's resulting injuries.

On December 6, 2004, decedent returned to see his psychologist in New Jersey. The psychologist described decedent as "looking tired with some weight loss." Decedent explained that he was depressed, but he rejected using anti-depressants. As the trial court found, "[s]ometime that evening or during the next morning the decedent committed suicide."

On May 8, 2006, the Estate of Nick Hanges, as the named plaintiff, filed suit in the law Division against defendant Metropolitan Property & Casualty Insurance Co. In its complaint, plaintiff alleged that decedent had purchased uninsured motorist coverage from defendant and that such insurance should have covered the damages arising from the October 31, 2004 accident. After filing its answer, defendant moved for summary judgment. Plaintiff opposed that application and cross-moved for partial summary judgment.

On March 14, 2008, the trial court heard argument on both the motion and cross-motion for summary judgment and, on March 20, 2008, the court issued its written, unpublished decision. The trial court concluded that the statements to the police were not admissible under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(6) because "[h]is statement to the police officer was an attempt to shift the responsibility [for] the accident and injuries he incurred to an unknown phantom vehicle." The trial court further determined that "[t]he decedent was under no duty to report his version of the accident in a truthful manner; in fact, he had much to gain by giving the police officer a self-serving account of what occurred." The court found that the statement did not "possess the requisite trustworthiness or reliability to be admitted under the hearsay exceptions for unavailable declarants and therefore cannot be admitted as evidence."

Plaintiff appealed and defendant cross-appealed. The Appellate Division agreed that the statements to the two treating physicians and the psychologist were inadmissible hearsay, but concluded that the statements to the police were admissible under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(6). The Appellate Division rejected the trial court's analysis that the self-serving nature of the statements sufficed to render them untrustworthy. The panel stressed that "[t]here is nothing in the record, moreover, to indicate that the statement was not made in good faith or that it was otherwise lacking in reliability or trustworthiness." Focusing on the issue that persuaded the trial court -- whether decedent had a reason to lie to the police in giving his version of the accident -- the panel concluded that it was "a credibility issue solely within the province of the jury and not subject to the trial court's determination on a motion for summary judgment." It therefore reversed the judgment of the trial court only in respect of the admissibility of decedent's post-accident statement to the police and remanded the case for further proceedings; it also affirmed the orders of the trial court defendant challenged in respect of the cross-appeal.

The Supreme Court granted defendant's petition for certification, limited to the issue of whether decedent's statements to the police concerning the cause of his October 31, 2004 automobile accident were admissible under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(6).

HELD: The trial court's exclusion of decedent's statement to the police in rendering its decision on defendant's motion for summary judgment constitutes an abuse of discretion and cannot be sustained. Furthermore, because the trial court should have considered decedent's statement to the police as competent, relevant and material evidence of a "phantom vehicle" and because the Supreme Court owes no deference to the trial court's legal conclusions in respect of its summary judgment order, the Court concludes that the entry of summary judgment in defendant's favor was in error.

1. Recent decisions reinforce that "[i]n reviewing a trial court's evidential ruling, an appellate court is limited to examining the decision for abuse of discretion[,]" a proposition the Supreme Court uniformly has endorsed. In a related vein germane to the review of legal conclusions reached on summary judgment, the Court consistently has held that "[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference[,]" and, hence, an "issue of law [is] subject to de novo plenary appellate review[,]" regardless of the context. Given the procedural posture of this case, the Court is presented with an apparent hybrid: an evidentiary decision (which is subject to the abuse of discretion standard of review) made within the context of a summary judgment application (which produced a legal conclusion itself subject to a plenary de novo review). Those seemingly contrasting concerns lie at the root of the parties' initial disagreement. In its nascent stage, however, the Court rejects any such claim of conflict as illusory. Although decisions concerning the admissibility of evidence clearly are the product of the application of our Rules of Evidence to adduced facts, and thus are themselves pure issues of law, our jurisprudence uniformly has recognized that appellate review of evidence determinations should be limited. Evidentiary decisions are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard because, from its genesis, the decision to admit or exclude evidence is one firmly entrusted to the trial court's discretion. As a practical matter, a trial court confronted with an evidence determination precedent to ruling on a summary judgment motion squarely must address the evidence decision first. It is only after the trial court has made the findings required to either admit or exclude the proffered evidence and has made a ruling thereon that it may proceed to determine the then-pending summary judgment. On appeal, then, those rulings will be gauged separately: the evidentiary ruling under an abuse of discretion standard, and the legal conclusions undergirding the summary judgment motion itself on a plenary de novo basis. (Pp. 15-19)

2. Under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(6), four conditions must be satisfied: (1) the declarant must be dead; (2) the statement must have been made in good faith; (3) the statement must have been made upon the declarant's own personal knowledge; and (4) there must be a probability from the circumstances that the statement is trustworthy. DeVito v. Sheeran, 165 N.J. 167, 194 (2000). The first and third elements are self-evident: the parties concede that the declarant is dead and that he spoke from personal knowledge when he made the contested statement. The second and fourth elements require additional, more nuanced analysis. No doubt, decedent was involved in a one-car crash, and there is only his statement upon which blame for the accident can be shifted to another. Further, the skepticism with which the trial court viewed decedent's statement, although not dispositive, is understandable. That said, the record before the trial court simply contained no objective proof of deceit by decedent: Intuition aside, there was no evidence adduced that demonstrated the impossibility or unlikelihood of decedent's statement. In the face of a lopsided record, where a version of events consistently told is countered solely by an intuitive but unsupported notion of self-interest, a determination that ignores the record facts in favor of intuition cannot be said to be based on substantial, credible evidence in the record and, therefore, constitutes a clear error in judgment. In those circumstances, and despite the deference normally due to a trial court's evidentiary decisions, the Court is compelled to conclude that the trial court's exclusion of decedent's statement to the police in rendering its decision on defendant's motion for summary judgment constitutes an abuse of discretion and cannot be sustained. Furthermore, because the trial court should have considered decedent's statement to the police as competent, relevant and material evidence of a "phantom vehicle" and because the Supreme Court owes no deference to the trial court's legal conclusions in respect of its summary judgment order, the Court concludes that the entry of summary judgment in defendant's favor was in error. (Pp. 19-25)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED, the judgment of the Law Division granting summary judgment in favor of defendant and against plaintiff is VACATED, and the case is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, and HOENS join in JUSTICE RIVERASOTO's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rivera-soto

Argued March 22, 2010

N.J.R.E. 804(b)(6) codifies an exception to the hearsay rule. It allows, in civil proceedings only, the admission of "a statement made by a person unavailable as a witness because of death if the statement was made in good faith upon declarant's personal knowledge in circumstances indicating that it is trustworthy." Ibid.

In the context of a summary judgment motion, the trial court disallowed the admission of several hearsay statements made by a decedent concerning the cause of an automobile accident, ruling that, because it was in the decedent's self-interest to color the version of the events he gave to the police in the light most favorable to him, that self-interest automatically rendered that hearsay statement not in good faith and untrustworthy, thus inadmissible. The Appellate Division, although sustaining several of the evidentiary determinations made by the trial court concerning the decedent's later hearsay statements, disagreed with the trial court's rejection of the statements made by the decedent to a police officer shortly after the accident. It concluded that there was no factual basis in the record to support the trial court's determination that such statement was not made in good faith or was not trustworthy.

We agree. As a threshold matter, we observe that, ordinarily, an evidentiary determination made during trial is entitled to deference and is to be reversed only on a finding of an abuse of discretion; we see no reason to impose a different standard of review on an evidentiary determination made, as here, in the context of a summary judgment application. Applying that standard of review, the record discloses that the sole reason proffered by the trial court in determining that the hearsay statement was not trustworthy -- that it was in the declarant's self-interest to make the statement ...


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