Commercial Division Blog

Posted: December 4, 2013 / Categories Commercial, Trial

Court of Appeals Clarifies Criteria for Giving Missing Witness Charge

On November 26, 2013, the Court of Appeals issued a decision in DeVito v. Feliciano, Docket No. 195, explaining the criteria for issuing a missing witness charge.

DeVito was personal injury litigation, but the Court of Appeals' decision relates to an issue that affects commercial trials just as much as personal injury trials: the circumstances under which a jury should be instructed to draw a negative inference from a party's failure to call a key witness at trial.

The Court of Appeals explained:

An "uncalled witness" or "missing witness" charge instructs a jury that it may draw an adverse inference based on the failure of a party to call a witness who would normally be expected to support that party's version of events. The charge . . . advises a jury that if a party fails to offer a reasonable explanation for its failure to call a witness to testify on a question, then the jury may, although it is not required to, conclude that the testimony of the witness would not support that party's position on the question and would not contradict the evidence offered by the opposing party on this question. The jury is instructed that it may draw the strongest inference that the opposing evidence permits against a witness who fails to testify in a civil proceeding.

The preconditions for this charge . . . may be set out as follows: (1) the witness's knowledge is material to the trial; (2) the witness is expected to give noncumulative testimony; (3) the witness is under the control of the party against whom the charge is sought, so that the witness would be expected to testify in that party's favor; and (4) the witness is available to that party.

. . . [A] person's testimony properly may be considered cumulative of another's only when both individuals are testifying in favor of the same party. . . . [T]o hold otherwise would lead to an anomalous result. Indeed, if the testimony of a defense physician who had examined a plaintiff and confirmed the plaintiff's assertion of a serious injury were deemed to be cumulative to the evidence offered by the plaintiff, thereby precluding the missing witness charge, there would never be an occasion to invoke such charge. Accordingly, our holding is that an uncalled witness's testimony may properly be considered cumulative only when it is cumulative of testimony or other evidence favoring the party controlling the uncalled witness. In short, a witness's testimony may not be ruled cumulative simply on the ground that it would be cumulative of the opposing witness's testimony.

(Internal quotations and citations omitted).