The Strength Of Circumstantial Evidence
Circumstantial evidence, like hearsay, is a legal phrase that long ago jumped into common usage among the non-legal community. Yet its usage in everyday discourse indicates that not everyone knows what it is. Lay people have often discounted the reliability of evidence that is “merely” circumstantial.
What is circumstantial, as opposed to direct, evidence? In 1977, you enter Yankee Stadium late for the game. On your way up the stadium ramps you hear a thunderous ovation. The crowd has started to chant, “REG-GIE, REG-GIE.” You see Reggie Jackson leisurely trotting around the bases to home. The scoreboard shows the Yankees leading 1-0. Though you did not directly observe it, the evidence suggests that Reggie Jackson has just hit a home run. The evidence is circumstantial, but it is hard to argue with and is reliable.
In contrast, a fan who watched the whole thing could provide direct evidence of Reggie’s bat striking the ball and its flight over the fence.
Circumstantial evidence can be quite powerful and convincing in a court of law, as a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case indicates. New Jersey has long recognized that liability can be proven circumstantially by establishing that the accident would not have occurred except for a defect in the product. The circumstantial evidence that a plaintiff’s attorney would utilize includes the type of malfunction, proper handling of the product by the consumer, the age of the product and negating other possible causes of the accident. Done successfully, this kind of evidence can carry plaintiff’s burden and support a jury verdict.
The plaintiff in Myrlak v. Port Authority of N.Y and N.J., 157 N.J. 84 (1999) was a 6'6" man weighing 325 lbs. His new chair had knobs and controls to adjust seat back tension. One fateful day the five-week-old chair collapsed underneath him, causing severe injuries. A suit was filed against the manufacturer even though plaintiff’s expert was not able to identify the specific problem which caused the chair to collapse.
The trial judge gave instructions to the jury regarding circumstantial evidence, which the New Jersey Supreme Court approved under these facts. The Court went further by adopting “the indeterminate product defect test” found in the Third Restatement of the Law of Products Liability, which reads:
It may be inferred that the harm sustained by the plaintiff was caused by a product defect existing at the time of sale and distribution, without proof of a specific defect, when the incident that harmed the plaintiff:
(A) was of a kind that ordinarily occurs as a result of product defect; and
(B) was not, in the particular case, solely the result of causes other than product defect existing at the time of sale or distribution.
The plaintiff was granted a new trial where he would not be required to prove a specific defect in the chair if his circumstantial proof was strong enough. Presented with facts concerning the newness of the chair and evidence negating other causes for failure of the chair, the jury could infer that the product contained a defect at the time it left the manufacturer’s control.
So how strong is circumstantial evidence and when can it be used? It depends - on the circumstances.