Virginia: Brain Injury – a Lawyer’s Deposition

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Another issue in the consolidated brain injury appeal before the Virginia Supreme Court in Burns v. Gagnon, No. 110754 c/w Gagnon v. Burns, No. 110767 is the admissibility of the key witness’ de bene esse deposition taken in the companion predecessor action that was non-suited. Va. Sup. Ct. Rule 4:7(a)(7) provides that depositions taken in a prior action may be used in a subsequent action “involving the same subject matter…between the same parties…as if originally taken therefore”.

Also pertinent to the Burns/Gagnon crime victim case is Rule 4:7(a)(4)(B), which provides that a witness’ deposition may be used at trial if the witness is “out of this Commonwealth”:

The deposition of a witness, whether or not a party, may be used by any party for any purpose in any action upon a claim arising at law…if the court finds: (B) that the witness is at a greater distance than 100 miles from the place of trial or hearing, or is out of this Commonwealth, unless it appears that the absence of the witness was procured by the party offering the deposition;

“[W]e adhere to the pain language used in the rule.” Thornton v. Glazer, 271 Va. 566, 570-571 (2006)(delineating that in King v. International Harvester Co., 212 Va. 78 (1971) “the absence of the witness was procured by the party offering the deposition” where the witness was the party plaintiff himself). Greater Richmond Transit Co. v. Massey, 268 Va. 354 (2004)(rejecting defense styling that eyewitness’ absence was “not the type of absence” allowing admission of deposition at trial under Rule 4:7(a)(4)); Lombard v. Rohrbaugh, 262 Va. 484, 500 (2001)(holding “Rule 4:7 of the Rules of the Virginia Supreme Court provides for use of depositions in court proceedings ‘against any party who was present or represented at the taking of the deposition or who had reasonable notice thereof’.”); Willis v. Tenekjian, 68 Va. Cir. 203, 204-205 (Portsmouth Jul. 1, 2005)(holding deposition of retained medical expert located out-of-state and more than 100 from the Courthouse meets both independent criteria of Rule 4:7(a)(4)(B) for use as evidence at trial in lieu of witness live).

By contrast, Ayala v. Aggressive Towing and Transport, Inc., 276 Va. 169, 482-483 (2008) overturned introduction of a non-party’s “admission of responsibility in the form of a guilty plea on manslaughter charges,” explaining that its evidentiary use “is not governed by statute or Rule, but by hearsay exception doctrine governing declarations against a non-party’s penal interest.” But the prior testimony in the Burns/Gagnon brain injury action is distinguishable: it is a deposition governed by Rule 4:7(a) – plus the witness at bar was out-of-state and could not be commanded by Subpoena to return to Virginia for hearing or trial.

Moreover, even under the hearsay rule [which does not govern], admission is allowed when “a sufficient reason is shown why the original witness is not produced [at trial]”. Gray v. Graham, 231 Va. 1, 5 (1986); and in the Burns/Gagnon brain injury lawsuit, Plaintiff asserts the sufficient reason was stated by the witness in his de bene esse deposition: Diaz was active duty military on a 5-year hitch stationed out-of-state on a federal base enclave in Georgia awaiting deployment abroad during war-time. Further, this crime victim case also met the other requisites of Gray: “(1) that the party against whom the evidence is offered, or his privy, was a party on the former trial; (2) that the issue is substantially the same in the two cases; and (3) that the witness who proposes to testify to the former evidence is able to state it with satisfactory correctness”. 231 Va. at 5.