In this action we address a longstanding conflict among the Federal Courts of Appeals over whether Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8)(C), which provides an exception to the hearsay rule for public investigatory reports containing "factual findings," extends to conclusions and opinions contained in such reports. We also consider whether, on the facts of this litigation, the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to admit, on cross-examination, testimony intended to provide a more complete picture of a document about which the witness had testified on direct.
This litigation stems from the crash of a Navy training aircraft at Middleton Field, Alabama, on July 13, 1982, which took the lives of both pilots on board, Lieutenant Commander Barbara Ann Rainey and Ensign Donald Bruce Knowlton. The accident took place while Rainey, a Navy flight instructor, and Knowlton, her student, were flying "touch-and-go" exercises in a T-34C Turbo-Mentor aircraft, number 3E955. Their aircraft and several others flew in an oval pattern, each plane making successive landing/takeoff maneuvers on the runway. Following its fourth pass at the runway, 3E955 appeared to make a left turn prematurely, cutting out the aircraft ahead of it in the pattern and threatening a collision. After radio warnings from two other pilots, the plane banked sharply to the right in order to avoid the other aircraft. At that point it lost altitude rapidly, crashed, and burned.
Because of the damage to the plane and the lack of any survivors, the cause of the accident could not be determined with certainty. The two pilots' surviving spouses brought a product liability suit against petitioners Beech Aircraft Corporation, the plane's manufacturer, and Beech Aerospace Services, which serviced the plane under contract with the Navy.
At trial, the only seriously disputed question was whether pilot error or equipment malfunction had caused the crash. Both sides relied primarily on expert testimony. One piece of evidence presented by the defense was an investigative report prepared by Lieutenant Commander William Morgan on order of the training squadron's commanding officer and pursuant to authority granted in the Manual of the Judge Advocate General. This "JAG Report," completed during the six weeks following the accident, was organized into sections labeled "finding of fact," "opinions," and "recommendations," and was supported by some 60 attachments. The "finding of fact" included statements like the following:
Among his "opinions" Lieutenant Commander Morgan stated, in paragraph 5, that due to the deaths of the two pilots and the destruction of the aircraft "it is almost impossible to determine exactly what happened to Navy 3E955 from the time it left the runway on its last touch and go until it impacted the ground." He nonetheless continued with a detailed reconstruction of a possible set of events, based on pilot error, that could have caused the accident.
The trial judge initially determined, at a pretrial conference, that the JAG Report was sufficiently trustworthy to be admissible, but that it "would be admissible only on its factual
This action also concerns an evidentiary ruling as to a second document. Five or six months after the accident, plaintiff John Rainey, husband of the deceased pilot and himself a Navy flight instructor, sent a detailed letter to Lieutenant Commander Morgan. Based on Rainey's own investigation, the letter took issue with some of the JAG Report's findings and outlined Rainey's theory that "[t]he most probable primary cause factor of this aircraft mishap is a loss of useful power (or rollback) caused by some form of pneumatic sensing/fuel flow malfunction, probably in the fuel control unit." Id., at 104, 111.
At trial Rainey did not testify during his side's case in chief, but he was called by the defense as an adverse witness. On direct examination he was asked about two statements contained in his letter. The first was to the effect that his wife had unsuccessfully attempted to cancel the ill-fated training flight because of a variety of adverse factors including her student's fatigue. The second question concerned a portion of Rainey's hypothesized scenario of the accident:
Rainey admitted having made both statements. On cross-examination, Rainey's counsel asked the following question: "In the same letter to which Mr. Toothman made reference to in his questions, sir, did you also say that the most probably [sic] primary cause of this mishap was rollback?" Id., at 77. Before Rainey answered, the court sustained a defense objection on the ground that the question asked for Rainey's opinion. Further questioning along this line was cut off.
Following a 2-week trial, the jury returned a verdict for petitioners. A panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial. 784 F.2d 1523 (1986). Considering itself bound by the Fifth Circuit precedent of Smith v. Ithaca Corp., 612 F.2d 215 (1980),
On rehearing en banc, the Court of Appeals divided evenly on the question of Rule 803(8)(C). 827 F.2d 1498 (CA11 1987). It therefore held that Smith was controlling and consequently reinstated the panel judgment. On the Rule 106 question, the court unanimously reaffirmed the panel's decision that Rule 106 (or alternatively Rule 801(d)(1)(B)) required reversal. We granted certiorari to consider both issues. 485 U.S. 903 (1988).
Federal Rule of Evidence 803 provides that certain types of hearsay statements are not made excludable by the hearsay rule, whether or not the declarant is available to testify. Rule 803(8) defines the "public records and reports" which are not excludable, as follows:
Controversy over what "public records and reports" are made not excludable by Rule 803(8)(C) has divided the federal courts from the beginning. In the present litigation, the Court of Appeals followed the "narrow" interpretation of Smith v. Ithaca Corp., supra, at 220-223, which held that the
For several reasons, we do not agree. In the first place, it is not apparent that the term "factual findings" should be
Turning next to the legislative history of Rule 803(8)(C), we find no clear answer to the question of how the Rule's language should be interpreted. Indeed, in this litigation the legislative history may well be at the origin of the dispute. Rather than the more usual situation where a court must attempt to glean meaning from ambiguous comments of legislators who did not focus directly on the problem at hand, here the Committees in both Houses of Congress clearly recognized and expressed their opinions on the precise question at issue. Unfortunately, however, they took diametrically opposite positions. Moreover, the two Houses made no effort to reconcile their views, either through changes in the Rule's language or through a statement in the Report of the Conference Committee.
The House Judiciary Committee, which dealt first with the proposed rules after they had been transmitted to Congress by this Court, included in its Report but one brief paragraph on Rule 803(8):
The Senate Committee responded at somewhat greater length, but equally emphatically:
Clearly this legislative history reveals a difference of view between the Senate and the House that affords no definitive guide to the congressional understanding. It seems clear however that the Senate understanding is more in accord with the wording of the Rule and with the comments of the Advisory Committee.
That "provision for escape" is contained in the final clause of the Rule: evaluative reports are admissible "unless the sources of information or other circumstances indicate lack of trustworthiness." This trustworthiness inquiry — and not an arbitrary distinction between "fact" and "opinion" — was the Committee's primary safeguard against the admission of unreliable evidence, and it is important to note that it applies to all elements of the report. Thus, a trial judge has the discretion, and indeed the obligation, to exclude an entire report or portions thereof — whether narrow "factual" statements or broader "conclusions" — that she determines to be untrustworthy.
Our conclusion that neither the language of the Rule nor the intent of its framers calls for a distinction between "fact" and "opinion" is strengthened by the analytical difficulty of drawing such a line. It has frequently been remarked that the distinction between statements of fact and opinion is, at best, one of degree:
See also E. Cleary, McCormick on Evidence 27 (3d ed. 1984) ("There is no conceivable statement however specific, detailed and `factual,' that is not in some measure the product of inference and reflection as well as observation and memory"); R. Lempert & S. Saltzburg, A Modern Approach to Evidence 449 (2d ed. 1982) ("A factual finding, unless it is a simple report of something observed, is an opinion as to what more basic facts imply"). Thus, the traditional requirement that lay witnesses give statements of fact rather than opinion may
In the present action, the trial court had no difficulty in admitting as a factual finding the statement in the JAG Report that "[a]t the time of impact, the engine of 3E955 was operating but was operating at reduced power." Surely this "factual finding" could also be characterized as an opinion, which the investigator presumably arrived at on the basis of clues contained in the airplane wreckage. Rather than requiring that we draw some inevitably arbitrary line between the various shades of fact/opinion that invariably will be present in investigatory reports, we believe the Rule instructs us — as its plain language states — to admit "reports . . . setting forth . . . factual findings." The Rule's limitations and safeguards lie elsewhere: First, the requirement that reports contain factual findings bars the admission of statements not based on factual investigation. Second, the trustworthiness provision requires the court to make a determination as to whether the report, or any portion thereof, is sufficiently trustworthy to be admitted.
A broad approach to admissibility under Rule 803(8)(C), as we have outlined it, is also consistent with the Federal Rules' general approach of relaxing the traditional barriers to "opinion" testimony. Rules 702-705 permit experts to testify in the form of an opinion, and without any exclusion of opinions on "ultimate issues." And Rule 701 permits even a lay witness to testify in the form of opinions or inferences drawn from her observations when testimony in that form will be helpful to the trier of fact. We see no reason to strain to reach an interpretation of Rule 803(8)(C) that is contrary to the liberal thrust of the Federal Rules.
Respondents also contended on appeal that reversal was required because the District Court improperly restricted the cross-examination of plaintiff Rainey by his own counsel in regard to the letter Rainey had addressed to Lieutenant Commander Morgan. We agree with the unanimous holding of the Court of Appeals en banc that the District Court erred in refusing to permit Rainey to present a more complete picture of what he had written to Morgan.
We have no doubt that the jury was given a distorted and prejudicial impression of Rainey's letter. The theory of Rainey's case was that the accident was the result of a power failure, and, read in its entirety, his letter to Morgan was fully consistent with that theory. While Rainey did discuss problems his wife had encountered the morning of the accident which led her to attempt to cancel the flight, and also agreed that her airplane had violated pattern integrity in turning left prematurely, the thrust of his letter was to challenge
The common-law "rule of completeness," which underlies Federal Rule of Evidence 106, was designed to prevent exactly the type of prejudice of which Rainey complains. In its aspect relevant to this litigation, the rule of completeness was stated succinctly by Wigmore: "[T]he opponent, against whom a part of an utterance has been put in, may in his turn complement it by putting in the remainder, in order to secure for the tribunal a complete understanding of the total tenor and effect of the utterance." 7 J. Wigmore, Evidence in Trials at Common Law § 2113, p. 653 (J. Chadbourn rev. 1978).
In proposing Rule 106, the Advisory Committee stressed that it "does not in any way circumscribe the right of the adversary to develop the matter on cross-examination or as part of his own case." Advisory Committee's Notes on Fed. Rule Evid. 106, 28 U. S. C. App., p. 682. We take this to be a reaffirmation of the obvious: that when one party has made use of a portion of a document, such that misunderstanding or distortion can be averted only through presentation of another portion, the material required for completeness is ipso facto relevant and therefore admissible under Rules 401 and 402. See 1 J. Weinstein & M. Berger, Weinstein's Evidence ¶ 106, p. 106-20 (1986). The District Court's refusal to admit the proffered completion evidence was a clear abuse of discretion.
While much of the controversy in this suit has centered on whether Rule 106 applies, we find it unnecessary to address that issue. Clearly the concerns underlying Rule 106 are relevant here, but, as the general rules of relevancy permit a ready resolution to this litigation, we need go no further in exploring the scope and meaning of Rule 106.
Unfortunately for the clarity of the proceedings, the defendants' objection to the question put by Rainey's counsel was couched not in terms of relevance but rather as calling
We hold, first, that statements in the form of opinions or conclusions are not by that fact excluded from the scope of Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8)(C). We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals in that respect. Second, we hold that on the facts of this litigation the District Court abused its discretion in restricting the scope of cross-examination of respondent Rainey by his counsel, and to that extent we affirm the Court of Appeals' judgment. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
I join Parts I and II of the Court's opinion, but dissent from Part III. I do not believe the District Court abused its discretion in refusing to admit this particular testimony. The Court concedes that "counsel did not explain the evidentiary basis of his argument as thoroughly as might ideally be desired . . ." ante, at 174, but I would go further and say that counsel's brief presentation to the District Court was ambiguous at best.
Rainey's attorney was faced with an objection to testimony he wished to elicit from his client based on opposing counsel's perception that it would be nonexpert opinion.
Rainey's lawyer seems to have been arguing that, because no one objected to Rainey's answers to defendant's questions about the letter as nonexpert opinion, Rainey should be able to answer similar questions put by his own attorney without that objection. The argument looks more like one based on
Today, the Court offers sound reasons for the admission of the testimony in question, but they are reasons which it has adduced from briefs and careful research, not the reasons expressed by counsel at trial.
Trial judges do not have the luxury of briefs or research when making a typical evidentiary ruling, and for this reason we have traditionally required the proponent of evidence to defend it against objection by showing why it should be admissible. Federal Rule of Evidence 103(a)(2) requires an "offer of proof" in order to preserve for review a perceived error excluding evidence.
The disagreement in these cases is not about applicable Rules of Evidence, but how a trial judge should fairly have understood an offer of proof under these circumstances. This Court, far removed from the factual context and on the basis of a cold record, is in no position to say that the trial court's ruling in this situation was an abuse of discretion. Cf. Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 575 (1985).
"Because both pilots were killed in the crash and because of the nearly total destruction of the aircraft by fire, it is almost impossible to determine exactly what happened to Navy 3E955 from the time it left the runway on its last touch and go until it impacted the ground. However, from evidence available and the information gained from eyewitnesses, a possible scenario can be constructed as follows:
"a. 3E955 entered the Middleton pattern with ENS Knowlton at the controls attempting to make normal landings.
"b. After two unsuccessful attempts, LCDR Rainey took the aircraft and demonstrated two landings `on the numbers.' After getting the aircraft safely airborne from the touch and go, LCDR Rainey transferred control to ENS Knowlton.
"c. Due to his physical strength, ENS Knowlton did not trim down elevator as the aircraft accelerated toward 100 knots; in fact, due to his inexperience, he may have trimmed incorrectly, putting in more up elevator.
"d. As ENS Knowlton was climbing to pattern altitude, he did not see the aircraft established on downwind so he began his crosswind turn. Due to ENS Knowlton's large size, LCDR Rainey was unable to see the conflicting traffic.
"e. Hearing the first call, LCDR Rainey probably cautioned ENS Knowlton to check for traffic. Hearing the second call, she took immediate action and told ENS Knowlton she had the aircraft as she initiated a turn toward an upwind heading.
"f. As the aircraft was rolling from a climbing left turn to a climbing right turn, ENS Knowlton released the stick letting the up elevator trim take effect causing the nose of the aircraft to pitch abruptly up.
"g. The large angle of bank used trying to maneuver for aircraft separation coupled with the abrupt pitch up caused the aircraft to stall. As the aircraft stalled and went into a nose low attitude, LCDR Rainey reduced the PCL (power control lever) toward idle. As she was rolling toward wings level, she advanced the PCL to maximum to stop the loss of altitude but due to the 2 to 4 second lag in engine response, the aircraft impacted the ground before power was available." App. 14-15.
Nor is the scope of Rule 803(8)(C) unexplored terrain among legal scholars. The leading evidence treatises are virtually unanimous in recommending the broad approach. See E. Cleary, McCormick on Evidence 890, n. 7 (3d ed. 1984); M. Graham, Handbook of Federal Evidence 886 (2d ed. 1986); R. Lempert & S. Saltzburg, A Modern Approach to Evidence 449-450 (2d ed. 1982); G. Lilly, An Introduction to the Law of Evidence 275-276 (2d ed. 1987); 4 D. Louisell & C. Mueller, Federal Evidence § 455, pp. 740-741 (1980); 4 J. Weinstein & M. Berger, Weinstein's Evidence ¶ 803(8), pp. 803-250 to 803-252 (1987). See generally Grant, The Trustworthiness Standard for the Public Records and Reports Hearsay Exception, 12 Western St. U. L. Rev. 53, 81-85 (1984) (favoring broad admissibility); Note, The Scope of Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8)(C), 59 Texas L. Rev. 155 (1980) (advocating narrow interpretation); Comment, The Public Documents Hearsay Exception for Evaluative Reports: Fact or Fiction?, 63 Tulane L. Rev. 121 (1988) (same).
In a case similar in many respects to these, the trial court applied the trustworthiness requirement to hold inadmissible a JAG Report on the causes of a Navy airplane accident; it found the report untrustworthy because it "was prepared by an inexperienced investigator in a highly complex field of investigation." Fraley v. Rockwell Int'l Corp., 470 F.Supp. 1264, 1267 (SD Ohio 1979). In the present litigation, the District Court found the JAG Report to be trustworthy. App. 35. As no party has challenged that finding, we have no occasion to express an opinion on it.
"Q. One last point. In the same letter to which Mr. Toothman made reference to in his questions, sir, did you also say that the most probably [sic] primary cause of this mishap was rollback?
"Mr. Toothman: I would object to this, Your Honor. Probable cause is an opinion.
"The Court: I beg your pardon?
"Mr. Toothman: He's trying to get an opinion out of him now, not a fact.
"The Court: Objection sustained.
"Mr. Larry: Your Honor, he has had the ability —
"Mr. Toothman: I object to him arguing.
"Mr. Larry: May I be heard on this?
"The Court: Yes, sir. Go ahead.
"Mr. Larry: On the basis that this letter constitutes an admission by Commander Rainey, he has been asked to answer every single question Mr. Toothman had respecting —
"The Court: I don't recall going into anything except the matter about that right turn and so forth, and that's all he went into. He did express that opinion and that came in as an admission against him, I suppose, but that doesn't mean you can qualify him for the questions you are now asking. The objection is sustained." App. 77-78.
"Error may not be predicated upon a ruling which admits or excludes evidence unless a substantial right of the party is affected, and
"(2) In case the ruling is one excluding evidence, the substance of the evidence was made known to the court by offer or was apparent from the context within which questions were asked."
We add that we find surprising the degree of certainty manifested by the dissent as to what the trial judge understood Rainey's counsel to be arguing — so certain indeed that it would correct what he actually said. Compare n. 16, supra ("that doesn't mean you can qualify him"), with post, at 176 ("that doesn't mean you can['t] qualify him"). The dissent has the trial judge suggest that counsel qualify Rainey as an expert, and implicitly faults counsel for not having proceeded to do so. Yet there is no basis whatever — other than the dissent's apparent belief that it is what he should have said — for assuming that the trial judge meant to say "can't" when he in fact said "can."