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

Annotate this Case

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

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

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

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, 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 case, 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.

I

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. [Footnote 1] The plaintiffs alleged that the crash had been

Page 488 U. S. 157

caused by a loss of engine power, known as "rollback," due to some defect in the aircraft's fuel control system. The defendants, on the other hand, advanced the theory of pilot error, suggesting that the plane had stalled during the abrupt avoidance maneuver.

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:

"13. At approximately 1020, while turning crosswind without proper interval, 3E955 crashed, immediately caught fire and burned."

"* * * *"

"27. At the time of impact, the engine of 3E955 was operating, but was operating at reduced power."

App. 10-12. 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. [Footnote 2] The next two paragraphs stated a caveat and a conclusion:

Page 488 U. S. 158

"6. Although the above sequence of events is the most likely to have occurred, it does not change the possibility that a 'rollback' did occur."

"7. The most probable cause of the accident was the pilots [sic] failure to maintain proper interval."

Id. at 15.

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

Page 488 U. S. 159

findings, and would not be admissible insofar as any opinions or conclusions are concerned." Id. at 35. The day before trial, however, the court reversed itself and ruled, over the plaintiffs' objection, that certain of the conclusions would be admitted. Id. at 40-41. Accordingly, the court admitted most of the report's "opinions," including the first sentence of paragraph 5 about the impossibility of determining exactly what happened, and paragraph 7, which opined about failure to maintain proper interval as "[t]he most probable cause of the accident." Id. at 97. On the other hand, the remainder of paragraph 5 was barred as "nothing but a possible scenario," id. at 40, and paragraph 6, in which investigator Morgan refused to rule out rollback, was deleted as well. [Footnote 3]

This case 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:

Page 488 U. S. 160

"Didn't you say, sir, that after Mrs. Rainey's airplane rolled wings level, that Lieutenant Colonel Habermacher's plane came into view unexpectedly at its closest point of approach, although sufficient separation still existed between the aircraft. However, the unexpected proximitely [sic] of Colonel Habermacher's plane caused one of the aircrew in Mrs. Rainey's plane to react instinctively and abruptly by initiating a hard right turn away from Colonel Habermacher's airplane?"

Id. at 75.

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 the 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), [Footnote 4] the panel agreed with Rainey's argument that Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8)(C), which excepts investigatory reports from the hearsay rule, did not encompass evaluative conclusions or opinions. Therefore, it held, the "conclusions" contained in the JAG Report should have been excluded. One member of the panel, concurring specially, urged however that the Circuit reconsider its interpretation of Rule 803(8)(C), suggesting that "Smith is an anomaly among the circuits." 784 F.2d at 1530 (opinion of Johnson, J.). The panel also held, citing Federal Rule of Evidence 106, that it was reversible error for the trial court

Page 488 U. S. 161

to have prohibited cross-examination about additional portions of Rainey's letter which would have put in context the admissions elicited from him on direct. [Footnote 5]

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).

II

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:

"Records, reports, statements, or data compilations, in any form, of public offices or agencies, setting forth (A) the activities of the office or agency, or (B) matters observed pursuant to duty imposed by law as to which matters there was a duty to report, . . . or (C) in civil actions and proceedings and against the Government in criminal cases, 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."

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 case, the Court of Appeals followed the "narrow" interpretation of Smith v. Ithaca Corp., supra, at 220-223, which held that the

Page 488 U. S. 162

term "factual findings" did not encompass "opinions" or "conclusions." Courts of Appeals other than those of the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, however, have generally adopted a broader interpretation. For example, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Baker v. Elcona Homes Corp., 588 F.2d 551, 557-558 (1978), cert. denied, 441 U.S. 933 (1979), held that

"factual findings admissible under Rule 803(8)(C) may be those which are made by the preparer of the report from disputed evidence. . . . [Footnote 6]"

The other Courts of Appeals that have squarely confronted the issue have also adopted the broader interpretation. [Footnote 7] We agree, and hold that factually based conclusions or opinions are not on that account excluded from the scope of Rule 803(8)(C).

Page 488 U. S. 163

Because the Federal Rules of Evidence are a legislative enactment, we turn to the "traditional tools of statutory construction," INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca,480 U. S. 421, 480 U. S. 446 (1987), in order to construe their provisions. We begin with the language of the Rule itself. Proponents of the narrow view have generally relied heavily on a perceived dichotomy between "fact" and "opinion" in arguing for the limited scope of the phrase "factual findings." Smith v. Ithaca Corp. contrasted the term "factual findings" in Rule 803(8) (C) with the language of Rule 803(6) (records of regularly conducted activity), which expressly refers to "opinions" and "diagnoses." "Factual findings," the court opined, must be something other than opinions. Smith, 612 F.2d at 221-222. [Footnote 8]

For several reasons, we do not agree. In the first place, it is not apparent that the term "factual findings" should be

Page 488 U. S. 164

read to mean simply "facts" (as opposed to "opinions" or "conclusions"). A common definition of "finding of fact" is, for example, "[a] conclusion by way of reasonable inference from the evidence." Black's Law Dictionary 569 (5th ed.1979). To say the least, the language of the Rule does not compel us to reject the interpretation that "factual findings" includes conclusions or opinions that flow from a factual investigation. Second, we note that, contrary to what is often assumed, the language of the Rule does not state that "factual findings" are admissible, but that "reports . . . setting forth . . . factual findings" (emphasis added) are admissible. On this reading, the language of the Rule does not create a distinction between "fact" and "opinion" contained in such reports.

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 case, 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 Committee approved Rule 803(8) without substantive change from the form in which it was submitted by the Court. The Committee intends that the phrase 'factual findings' be strictly construed, and that evaluations or opinions contained in public reports shall not be

Page 488 U. S. 165

admissible under this Rule."

H.R.Rep. No. 93-650, p. 14 (1973). The Senate Committee responded at somewhat greater length, but equally emphatically:

"The House Judiciary Committee report contained a statement of intent that "the phrase factual findings' in subdivision (c) be strictly construed, and that evaluations or opinions contained in public reports shall not be admissible under this rule." The committee takes strong exception to this limiting understanding of the application of the rule. We do not think it reflects an understanding of the intended operation of the rule as explained in the Advisory Committee notes to this subsection. . . . We think the restrictive interpretation of the House overlooks the fact that, while the Advisory Committee assumes admissibility in the first instance of evaluative reports, they are not admissible if, as the rule states, "the sources of information or other circumstances indicate lack of trustworthiness.""

"* * * *"

"The committee concludes that the language of the rule, together with the explanation provided by the Advisory Committee, furnish sufficient guidance on the admissibility of evaluative reports."

S.Rep. No. 93-1277, p. 18 (1974). 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. [Footnote 9]

Page 488 U. S. 166

The Advisory Committee's comments are notable, first, in that they contain no mention of any dichotomy between statements of "fact" and "opinions" or "conclusions." What was on the Committee's mind was simply whether what it called "evaluative reports" should be admissible. Illustrating the previous division among the courts on this subject, the Committee cited numerous cases in which the admissibility of such reports had been both sustained and denied. It also took note of various federal statutes that made certain kinds of evaluative reports admissible in evidence. What is striking about all of these examples is that these were reports that stated conclusions.E.g., Moran v. Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co., 183 F.2d 467, 472-473 (CA3 1950) (report of Bureau of Mines concerning the cause of a gas tank explosion admissible); Franklin v. Skelly Oil Co., 141 F.2d 568, 571-572 (CA10 1944) (report of state fire marshal on the cause of a gas explosion inadmissible); 42 U.S.C. § 269(b) (bill of health by appropriate official admissible as prima facie evidence of vessel's sanitary history and condition). The Committee's concern was clearly whether reports of this kind should be admissible. Nowhere in its comments is there the slightest indication that it even considered the solution of admitting only "factual" statements from such reports. [Footnote 10]

Page 488 U. S. 167

Rather, the Committee referred throughout to "reports," without any such differentiation regarding the statements they contained. What the Committee referred to in the Rule's language as "reports . . . setting forth . . . factual findings" is surely nothing more or less than what in its commentary it called "evaluative reports." Its solution as to their admissibility is clearly stated in the final paragraph of its report on this Rule. That solution consists of two principles: first, "the rule . . . assumes admissibility in the first instance. . . ." Second, it provides "ample provision for escape if sufficient negative factors are present."

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. [Footnote 11] Moreover, safeguards built into other portions of

Page 488 U. S. 168

the Federal Rules, such as those dealing with relevance and prejudice, provide the court with additional means of scrutinizing and, where appropriate, excluding evaluative reports or portions of them. And of course it goes without saying that the admission of a report containing "conclusions" is subject to the ultimate safeguard -- the opponent's right to present evidence tending to contradict or diminish the weight of those conclusions.

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:

"All statements in language are statements of opinion, i.e., statements of mental processes or perceptions. So-called 'statements of fact' are only more specific statements of opinion. What the judge means to say, when he asks the witness to state the facts, is: 'The nature of this case requires that you be more specific, if you can, in your description of what you saw.'"

W. King & D. Pillinger, Opinion Evidence in Illinois 4 (1942) (footnote omitted), quoted in 3 J. Weinstein & M. Berger, Weinstein's Evidence

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.