Beech Aircraft Corp. v. Rainey
488 U.S. 153 (1988)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Beech Aircraft Corp. v. Rainey, 488 U.S. 153 (1988)

Beech Aircraft Corporation v. Rainey

No. 87-981

Argued October 4, 1988

Decided December 12, 1988*

488 U.S. 153

Syllabus

Respondents' spouses, a Navy flight instructor and her student, were killed when, during training exercises, their Navy aircraft banked sharply to avoid another plane, lost altitude, and crashed. At the trial of respondents' product liability suit against petitioners, the companies which manufactured and serviced the plane in question, the only seriously disputed issue was whether the crash was caused by pilot error or equipment malfunction. Having previously determined that a Navy investigative report of the incident (the JAG Report or Report) was sufficiently trustworthy to be admissible, the District Court admitted, over respondents' objections, most of the Report's "opinions," including a statement suggesting that pilot error was the most probable cause of the accident. Moreover, after respondent Rainey, who was himself a Navy flight instructor, admitted on direct examination as an adverse witness that he had made certain statements arguably supporting a pilot error theory in a detailed letter in which he took issue with some of the JAG Report's findings, his counsel attempted to ask him on cross-examination whether the letter did not also say that the most probable primary cause of the mishap was a loss of power due to equipment malfunction. However, before Rainey could answer, the court sustained a defense objection on the ground that the question asked for Rainey's opinion, and cut off further questioning along this line. After the jury returned a verdict for petitioners, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial. The court held itself bound by Smith v. Ithaca Corp., 612 F.2d 215 (CA5), such that Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8)(C) -- which excepts from the hearsay rule "public records and reports" setting forth "factual findings resulting from an investigation made pursuant to authority granted by law, unless the sources of information or other circumstances indicate lack of trustworthiness" -- did not encompass the JAG Report's evaluative conclusions or opinions. The court also held that Federal Rule of Evidence 106 forbade the trial court to prohibit cross-examination about additional portions of Rainey's letter which would

Page 488 U. S. 154

have put in context the admissions elicited from him on direct examination. On rehearing en banc, the Court of Appeals did not disturb the panel's judgment.

Held:

1. Statements in the form of opinions or conclusions are not by that fact excluded from the scope of Rule 803(8)(C). The Rule's language does not call for the distinction between "fact" and "opinion" drawn by Smith, supra, and other proponents of a narrow interpretation of the Rule's "factual findings" phrase, since "finding of fact" is commonly defined to include conclusions by way of reasonable inference from the evidence, and since, in specifying the kinds of reports that are admissible, the Rule does not create a distinction between "fact" and "opinion." Nor is any such distinction required by the intent of the Rule's framers, as expressed in the Advisory Committee's Notes on the Rule. This conclusion is strengthened by the analytical difficulty of drawing such a distinction. Rather than requiring that some inevitably arbitrary line be drawn between the various shades of fact/opinion that invariably will be present in investigatory reports, the Rule instructs courts -- as its plain language states -- to admit "reports . . . setting forth . . . factual findings." Appropriate limitations and safeguards lie in the fact that the Rule's requirement that reports contain factual findings bars the admission of statements not based on factual investigation, and in the Rule's trustworthiness requirement. Thus, as long as a conclusion satisfies the latter requirements, it should be admissible along with other portions of the Report. Here, since the District Court determined that certain of the JAG Report's conclusions were trustworthy, it rightly admitted them into evidence. Pp. 488 U. S. 161-170.

2. On the facts of this case, the District Court abused its discretion in restricting the scope of cross-examination of respondent Rainey by his counsel in regard to his letter. Pp. 488 U. S. 170-175.

(a) While the letter did make the statements to which Rainey admitted on direct examination which tended to support a pilot error theory, the letter's thrust was to challenge that theory as inconsistent with the evidence and the likely actions of the two pilots, and to expound at length on Rainey's theory of equipment malfunction and demonstrate how the various pieces of evidence supported that theory. Since it is plausible that the jury would have concluded from Rainey's testimony that he did not believe in his equipment malfunction theory when he wrote the letter, but developed it only later for litigation purposes, the jury was given a distorted and prejudicial impression of the letter, which Rainey's counsel was unable to counteract due to the District Court's refusal to allow him to present additional information on cross-examination. The common law "rule of completeness," which has been

Page 488 U. S. 155

partially codified in Rule 106 -- whereby, when a party has introduced part of a writing, an adverse party may require the introduction of any other part which ought in fairness to be considered contemporaneously -- was designed to prevent exactly this type of prejudice. However, although the concerns underlying Rule 106 are clearly relevant to this case, it is unnecessary to determine whether the Rule applies, since, where misunderstanding or distortion can be averted only through presentation of an additional portion of a document, the material required for completeness is necessarily relevant and admissible. The question posed by Rainey's counsel on cross-examination was not asked for the purpose of eliciting Rainey's opinion as to the cause of the accident, but rather inquired whether he had made a certain statement in his letter, a question he was eminently qualified to answer. Defense counsel's objection to that question as calling for an opinion could not avail in view of the obvious purpose for which the statement was offered. Pp. 488 U. S. 170-173.

(b) Petitioners' contention that Rainey waived the right to pursue the cross-examination testimony issue on appeal because he did not properly raise it in the trial court is not persuasive. The nature of Rainey's proposed testimony was abundantly apparent from the very question put by his counsel, such that the offer-of-proof requirement of Federal Rule of Evidence 103(a)(2) was satisfied. Moreover, Rainey's counsel substantially satisfied the requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 46 that he put the court on notice as to his objection to the exclusion and the grounds therefor, when, in the colloquy following the defense objection to his question, and before he was cut off, he began to articulate his completeness argument. Pp. 488 U. S. 174-175.

827 F.2d 1498, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and II of which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, J., joined. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 488 U. S. 176.

Page 488 U. S. 156

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