The Unobjection and its Effect on the Record
May 5, 2020 § 2 Comments
What happens when one fails to object to clearly objectionable evidence? Should the chancellor even consider that evidence? Or is it to be considered along with all other competent evidence?
Those were questions that arose out of a trial in which heirs of Mary Cook sought to set aside deeds and financial transactions in favor of John Ward based on Ms. Cook’s incompetence. During the trial testimony was elicited by Ward’s own attorney, who made no objection to the hearsay responses. After the chancellor ruled against Ward, he appealed, and one ground was admission of the hearsay.
The COA affirmed in Ward v. Est. of Cook, et al., decided April 21, 2020. Judge Jack Wilson wrote for the unanimous court:
¶22. Ward next argues that the chancellor erred by considering hearsay testimony regarding what a bank teller told Lynn Cook III. However, Ward failed to object to the testimony at trial. Indeed, although Ward fails to provide a relevant record citation, it is appears that he is complaining about testimony that his own attorney elicited. A party cannot complain about testimony that his own attorney elicited. Shaheed v. State, 205 So. 3d 1105, 1111-1112 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). In addition, “[w]hen . . . hearsay goes into evidence without objection, the trial court has no opportunity to evaluate the proffered testimony under [Mississippi Rule of Evidence] 803(24), or any other exception. Thus, the failure to object to hearsay operates as a waiver of the issue on appeal.” Swinney v. State, 241 So. 3d 599, 610 (¶40) (Miss. 2018) (quoting Rubenstein v. State, 941 So. 2d 735, 764 (¶113) (Miss. 2006)). Finally, hearsay evidence that is admitted without objection becomes competent evidence for the trier of fact to consider. Shaheed, 205 So. 3d at 1110 (¶16). Therefore, this issue is entirely without merit.
Notice that the case law says that the hearsay becomes competent evidence for the court to consider, NOT that the chancellor must give it the same weight as other evidence. The chancellor could still find it to have little probative value, or find it not to be credible because of its hearsay nature. The chancellor is the finder of the weight and credibility to be assigned to evidence. In one case I had involving a will, an attorney sat mute through the examination of a witness by his opponent, not asserting a single objection, although nearly every question elicited hearsay testimony. I found that witness’s testimony not to be credible and discounted almost all of it.
Always be mindful in the course of a trial that you are not there solely to obtain a favorable ruling. You are also there to make a record that will win the case on appeal. You can’t do the latter if you fail to make timely objections. Oh, and you have to make sure that everything you need to prevail is in the record, as I pointed out in this old post.