Hearsay Evidence: Legal Basics for Non-Lawyers

If you have ever watched a legal thriller or read a John Grisham novel, you have heard attorneys or judges use the word “hearsay”. If you are involved in a lawsuit, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of this legal term. Hearsay is a type of statement that is typically not allowed as evidence in court.

In legal terms, hearsay is an out of court statement used to prove the truth of the matter asserted. See, Federal Rule of Evidence (FRE) 801. For example, if we need to prove that John was at the post office on Monday, we can’t have Susan testify that John told her he was at the post office on Monday. Witnesses are only allowed to testify about what they have personally seen, experienced, or heard. The reason for this rule is that it is unfair to the other party if they can’t cross-examine John about his whereabouts. An out of court statement is simply something that a person said when they were not in court.

There are several types of out of court statements that look like hearsay, but are still admissible. For example, when a witness makes a sudden exclamation out of surprise or fear or excitement, this can come into evidence. When certain requirements are met, business records may be admissible. Prior sworn testimony can be admitted into evidence.

If you are the person who sued someone (“the plaintiff”) or if you have been sued (“the defendant”), it is essential for you to remember that the statements you make out of court are NOT hearsay. If you talk about something related to your lawsuit out of court, other people can testify about what you said. Under the law, this is called an admission of a party. Similarly, anything your opponent says out of court is an admission that may come into evidence.

There are many nuances to the rule against hearsay that a skilled trial lawyer can use to get hearsay into evidence or keep it out. If your lawyer knows about out of court statements that hurt your case, your lawyer may be able to keep them out of evidence. The most important takeaway is to keep your lawyer informed about everything you have said about your case to other people. You should not discuss your case with anyone outside of your legal team. Also, inform your lawyer about everything you have heard anyone else say about the facts of your case.

If you are our client and have questions about hearsay, one of our experienced trial lawyers would be glad to answer your questions.