Statements Against Interest, a Hearsay Exception

Rowe v. Bell & Gossett Co., 239 N.J. 531 (2019). This first Supreme Court opinion of the new Term, written by Justice Patterson for a unanimous Court, addresses the hearsay exception contained in Evidence Rule 803(c)(25). Plaintiff, who died during the pendency of appeals in the case, sued a number of defendants after contracting mesothelioma. All but one defendant, “Universal,” settled before trial.

Plaintiff won a jury verdict as to Universal. But Universal offered into evidence interrogatory answers and deposition testimony of the settling defendants in support of a crossclaim for contribution and indemnification that Universal had filed. The Comparative Negligence Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1 to -5.8, and the Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Law, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-1 to -5, authorize the allocation of a percentage of fault to settling defendants in proper circumstances, as Justice Patterson noted, citing Young v. Latta, 123 N.J. 584 (1991).

Universal argued that the evidence was admissible under any of three hearsay exceptions. Those were statements by a party-opponent under Evidence Rule 801(b), testimony in prior proceedings under Evidence Rule 804(b)(1), or statements against interest under Evidence Rule 803(c)(25). The Law Division admitted some of Universal’s proffered evidence under Rule 801(b). The jury found that evidence, along with other proofs, sufficient to show fault by the settling defendants and reduced its verdict against Universal accordingly.

Plaintiff appealed. The Appellate Division found that admission of the disputed evidence was improper under any of the theories that Universal had offered. That court reversed and remanded for a new trial as to the allocation of fault.

Universal petitioned for certification, which the Court granted. Applying de novo review, Justice Patterson held that the disputed evidence was properly admitted under Rule 803(c)(25). The Court thus reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the jury’s verdict. Justice Patterson found no reason to reach the issue of whether or how the other rules cited by Universal might have justified admission of the evidence.

Justice Patterson provided a detailed explication of the law under Rule 803(c)(25). That rule allows admission of a statement otherwise qualifying as hearsay if it was “at the time of its making so contrary to the declarant’s pecuniary, proprietary, or social interest, or so far tended to subject declarant to civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid declarant’s claim against another, that a reasonable person in declarant’s position would not have made the statement unless the person believed it to be true.” The Court found that the disputed evidence here satisfied that standard.