Story Half Told Leads to Reversal (NJ)

A story is only half told if there is only one side presented.  In Manata v. Pereira, the Superior Court of the State of New Jersey, Appellate Division held that a police report containing only half of a story was improperly used to discredit a witness.

The Appellate Division reversed the liability finding in this verbal threshold case, because plaintiff’s counsel improperly cross-examined defendant using a police report that only contained plaintiff’s version of the story.  Defendant-driver struck plaintiff-pedestrian as she attempted to cross the street in Newark, New Jersey.  Only plaintiff and defendant testified about the circumstances of the accident.  Plaintiff maintained that she was struck while walking in the crosswalk, while defendant asserted that plaintiff darted out from between two busses, attempting to cross in the middle of the block.

The police did not respond to the scene of the accident.  Defendant testified that he went to the police station later that day and provided the police with his version of events.  When defendant arrived at the police station, plaintiff was already present.  The undated police report contained only plaintiff’s version of events, made no mention of defendant’s version of the accident and was prepared contrary to the N.J. Motor Vehicle Commission report preparation guidelines. Defendant asked the police to correct the report to include his version of the accident but to no avail.

During the trial, plaintiff’s counsel did not offer the police report into evidence.  However, plaintiff’s counsel repeatedly used it in cross-examination to impeach defendant with his alleged omission of the version of events that he asserted during his testimony.  At the close of trial, the jury found for the plaintiff, awarding her $350,000.  However, the appellate court reversed the award, holding that the cross-examination was improper since plaintiff’s counsel conveyed through his questioning the substance of the unadmitted report, as evidence of defendant’s alleged omission.

While it may be tempting to use documents that are in full support of a client’s position, counsel must exercise caution when subtly referring to inadmissible evidence at trial.

Thanks to Steve Kim for his contribution to this post. If you have any questions, please email Paul at pclark@wcmlaw.com.