Are Evidence Rules Good for Society

Some of the previous posts have discussed evidence rules that prevent evidence from being allowed into court because of the effect it has on the fairness or reliability of the court proceeding.  However, there are also a large number of evidence rules which prevent otherwise appropriate evidence from being heard, less because it introduces unreliability into the court process and more because it is simply good for society if we have these rules.

Remedial Measures

Here are a few examples:  Evidence regarding so-called “subsequent remedial measures” or, in other words, attempts to fix problems, is generally excluded from court.  Discussions or information related to offers to compromise, plea, or settle claims are generally not admissible.  Nor are offers to pay medical expenses allowed to be introduced.

To explain what is meant by “good for society” it is helpful to consider an example.  Imagine that a police department has a bad policy on restraining subjects which instructs officers to choke them.

Imagine then that a suspect is injured by a police officer who, obeying the policy, chokes him.  If that suspect could sue the city and introduce evidence that the police department, after he was injured, changed their policy about how to restrain suspects, then the police department would have some very bad incentives.

Specifically, they would have an incentive to keep the bad policy because, if they modified it to help prevent the sort of injuries suffered by the suspect in this case, the suspect could use that information to suggest that his injury was their fault.  Society is better off if the police department changes their policy in favor of safer methods of restraining suspects.

Thus, even though the injured suspect would probably very much like to prove that his injury was caused by “bad” city policy by showing that it was “fixed” after his injury, we do not allow him to do so.  Society deems it more important that the police department adopt a better policy than that this one fellow obtain money for his injuries.  This is one way evidence rules are good for society.

Offers To Pay Medical Expenses

Another example of this sort of “good for society” reasoning is the prohibition on introducing evidence of offers to pay medical expenses.  It occasionally happens that someone who is in an accident with another person will offer to pay for the other fellow’s medical treatment.  This might be out of guilt, regret, or even simple generosity and goodwill.

But regardless of the real motive, offering to help an injured person is a nice thing to do and society wants to encourage this sort of behavior.  Thus, the folks involved in the accident will not be allowed to introduce an offer to pay medical expenses in order to show that the person who offered was at fault for the accident.

In addition, if one party to an accident offers to pay the injured person’s medical expenses, often, the injured person will not sue.  If that happens, the court system has one less case to deal with.  Because litigation is very expensive for society, we sometimes try to make rules that reduce the amount of litigation.

Settlement Discussions

The prohibition on evidence relating to pleas and settlement discussions exists for essentially that same case-reducing reason – sometimes called “judicial economy.”

Because of the enormous expenses involved in having trials, society benefits if cases resolve by plea or settlement rather than going to trial.  Plea and settlement discussions are more likely to result in an agreement if the participants feel they can be candid, open, and honest about the case.  Thus society had to find a way to make sure participants in plea and settlement negotiations feel free to be completely honest about the case. The rule that we have created therefore, is that no one may use evidence relating to plea or settlement discussions.

Reducing the number of trials might seem to be a rather weak explanation for prohibiting certain types of evidence from being used.  But any judge will tell you that if all cases went to trial, the justice system in the United States would literally collapse under the workload.

Thus, there is actually a very large incentive for society to make sure that it discourages some cases from being filed in the first place and that the cases that can be solved by plea or settlement agreement, are.

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