The impact of a disability determination by the Social Security Administration is often a point of issue during personal injury litigation, and now the New Jersey Appellate Division has ruled that the SSA’s decision as to whether an individual is entitled to disability benefits is inadmissible to establish plaintiff’s inability to return to work.
In Villanueva v. Zimmer, plaintiff suffered a back injury in a motor vehicle accident. The plaintiff alleged that she was unable to return to work as a seamstress due to back pain and the rigors of the job. While the plaintiff’s medical expert causally related the plaintiff’s injury to the motor vehicle accident, the defendants’ experts found no correlation between the accident and her condition, citing her excessive weight and age-related disc degeneration as the causes of her pain.
In support of her claim that she was unable to return to work, the plaintiff attempted to offer into evidence the determination of the SSA that plaintiff had become disabled on the date of the accident. The defendants objected to the introduction of the SSA determination and the defense motion in limine to preclude any reference to the SSA determination was granted. After a unanimous defense verdict, the trial court’s decision to preclude the SSA determination formulated the basis of plaintiff’s appeal.
In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Court focused its analysis on the New Jersey Rules of Evidence. The Court held that the SSA determination was based on material and information provided only by the plaintiff and involved no adversarial process or defense medical reports. In the Court’s view, the determination lacked “factual findings made pursuant to authority granted by law” such that it could be admissible hearsay (evidence offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted) under the public records exception. The Court went on to state that the only admissible “findings” of a public official are those that are statistical, not the subjective material and information provided by one seeking disability benefits upon which a SSA disability determination is based.
Thanks to Emily Kidder for her contribution to this post. If you would like more information please write to Mike Bono.