NEW JERSEY – The New Jersey Supreme Court held that disputed excerpts from a settled defendant’s interrogatory answers and corporate representative depositions were admissible as statements against interest under N.J.R.E. 803(c)(25). As such, when presented at trial with other evidence, those statements gave rise to a prima facie showing that the settled defendants bore fault, and a jury could properly consider whether to allocate some percentage of fault to them.

The defendant, Universal Engineering Co., Inc., a manufacturer of asbestos-containing dry cement, was the sole defendant at trial against the plaintiff, Ronald Rowe, who alleged that he developed mesothelioma through automotive work and through work as a boiler serviceman. Prior to trial, Universal demanded that corporate representatives from eight settled defendants appear at trial. All of the settled defendants declined to appear. To support its position that the jury should allocate fault to the settled defendants, at trial, Universal’s counsel read to the jury excerpts from the settled defendants’ interrogatory answers and deposition testimony from their corporate representatives.

Following the jury’s verdict, which allocated portions of fault to the eight settled defendants, the plaintiff moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial, and asked the court to vacate the jury’s allocation of fault to the settled defendants. The trial court denied the motion, and the appellate division reversed and remanded for a new trial on the apportionment of fault, holding that the disputed evidence was inadmissible as a statement of a party-opponent under N.J.R.E. 803(b)(1) because Universal did not offer the evidence against the settling defendants, but against the plaintiff. It further concluded that the interrogatory answers and deposition testimony were inadmissible under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(1) because the corporate representatives were not “unavailable” within the meaning of N.J.R.E. 804(a)(4).

The Supreme Court reviewed the appellate division’s decision, reversing the trial court’s admission into evidence of the interrogatory responses and corporate designee testimony. The court applied the standard of N.J.R.E. 803(c)(25) to Universal’s evidence of the settled defendant’s fault. The court concluded that “(t)hose statements were ‘so far contrary’ to the defendants’ interests, and ‘so far tended to subject’ them to civil liability, that a ‘reasonable person’ in their position would not have made them had that person believed them to be true,” reversing the appellate division, and reinstating the trial court’s judgment.

Read the case decision here.