Iowa Supreme Court Rules That You Can Get Away With Falsifying Evidence If You Make It Look Like An Innocent Mistake

Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Loehr v. Mettille, in which the court was confronted with a falsification of evidence issue.

Although Loehr was a construction defect and debt collection practices case. its lessons about altering evidence also apply to a personal injury or wrongful death suit, products liability claim, motor vehicle accident claim, dog bite claim, employment or labor law claim, business practices or contract law claim, nuisance law claim, or insurance law claim.  One of the questions raised in front of the jury was the extent to which the parties had spoken about the particulars of their arrangement.  The defendant’s telephone records were offered as evidence during his jury testimony regarding his discussions with the plaintiffs.

Before the case was submitted to the jury, the plaintiff’s counsel noticed that the telephone record was actually several pages pulled from different records and appeared to be a fabrication.  The plaintiff’s attorney pointed that out during his closing argument, but the jury returned a verdict for the defendant on the plaintiffs’ claims.

The plaintiffs requested a new trial based on the defendant’s submission of fake evidence in front of the jury.  The trial court held a hearing during which the defendant, his officer manager, and his trial attorney testified about the fabricated telephone records.  The defendant conceded that his “telephone records” were not real.  He maintained though that the fabricated evidence was an innocent mistake and not a deliberate fabrication.  The trial court disagreed and ordered a new trial because it concluded that the defendant had intentionally tried to mislead the jury.

On appeal the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the trial court.  It concluded that the fake evidence was the result of carelessness, not dishonesty.  The court also determined that, even if the defendant had intentionally fabricated evidence, the plaintiffs suffered no prejudice and the presentation of their case was not harmed as a result.

I don’t agree with the Iowa Supreme Court on this one.  Sure, it was a close call on whether this evidence was intentionally fabricated, and the trial court could have gone either way in granting a new trial.  But the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the trial court’s ruling seems to contradict two general principles of appellate law.  One is that trial courts’ decisions on those “close calls” should rarely be reversed on appeal and only if the trial court really messed up.  This trial judge’s decision was not so far off-base that reversal was justified.

Another rule is that the trial court is in the best position to view the trial and the witnesses and judge their credibility, unlike the appellate judges who review nothing but a paper transcript and the exhibits.  Therefore trial decisions about witness credibility and the impact of evidence are usually left alone on appeal.  The trial court in Loehr obviously did not find the defendant’s testimony about the false telephone records credible and must have believed that the fake evidence prejudiced the plaintiffs’ case.  The Iowa Supreme Court should have deferred to the trial court’s better vantage point in those regards and left the new trial decision in place.

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