Author HeadshotBy George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A, LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law and Hartley Brooks, Law Clerk, The Health Law Firm
On June 21, 2023, the Court of Appeals of Iowa overturned the verdict in a nursing home negligence case that awarded $6 million in compensation and damages to the plaintiff. The case was reversed and remanded for a new trial because inadmissible hearsay testimony was admitted into evidence by the trial court judge. The testimony being appealed was that of staff members who claimed to have heard “reports” and “rumors” of alleged abuse by a nurse on staff toward, not only the resident in question but other residents as well.

Hearsay in Iowa law is defined as “a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” Click here to read the Iowa Rules of Evidence concerning hearsay.  This is the same definition used by the federal courts and most other courts.

Essentially, hearsay is when someone repeats something they heard from another person and presents it as if they know it to be true. Hearsay is often equated to rumor. Hearsay is not admissible due to the nature of speculation required in making such a statement, the fact that such statements are inherently unreliable, and the fact that the actual witness is not in court to answer questions about it. Thus there is no way for a party or the judge to test the credibility of the actual witness or determine facts that may have influenced the observation and statement.

Hearsay is considered unreliable because the person who actually knows what happened (who saw what happened or heard what happened) is not present to be questioned about it. Therefore, there is no way to know what really happened for sure.

Details of the Case. 

In this case, the estate of the former nursing home resident, who succumbed to her injuries after a fall in the nursing home claimed adult abuse and that negligence caused a wrongful death. In its defense, the nursing home focused on the alleged abuse by a nurse on the staff. The statements that were challenged in the appeal included testimony made by six members of the nursing home staff that residents, other unnamed employees, and an Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals surveyor told them that the nurse in question had been physically rough with and swore at residents.

The employees testifying did not actually witness any such incidents. They were only testifying as to what they had heard someone else say (“hearsay”).

The trial court admitted these statements, allegedly not for their truth, but in an attempt to show that abuse had been reported and there had not been any follow-up investigation. The appellate court stated that this was not a valid reason to admit inadmissible hearsay into evidence because the estate must show clear proof that the conduct existed in order to prevent the jury from engaging in rampant speculation based on unreliable hearsay evidence.

People in today’s society, yes, even judges, often forget this basic principle of law. With all of the completely fabricated lies being put out as “news” on some news channels, with Internet rumors running rampant, and with politicians making egregiously false statements, it’s often hard to remember how to distinguish a fact from unreliable rumor or hearsay.

This is one of the problems with hearsay. It is often just gossip and rumor which change from person to person. Especially egregious conduct, criminal activity, and salacious acts become more and more exaggerated with each retelling. The founding fathers in English and American law realized the inherently unreliable nature of such “evidence.”

Under the hearsay rule, the Court of Appeals agreed with the nursing home that the statements being challenged were inadmissible hearsay evidence that influenced the jury’s verdict. Due to this, the court reversed the verdict and remanded the case for a new trial. To read the court’s opinion in full, click here.

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Kang, Y. Peter. “Iowa Court Overturns $6M Nursing Home Negligence Verdict.” Law360. (June 22, 2023).

About the Authors: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law; he is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Hartley Brooks is a law clerk with the health law firm. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.

Attorney Positions with The Health Law Firm. The Health Law Firm is always looking for qualified attorneys interested in health law practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. If you are a member of The Florida Bar and are interested, forward a cover letter and your resume to: [email protected] or fax to: (407) 331-3030.

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