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Public health records that stand up in court.

An environmental health inspector is writing up his or her restaurant inspection report. An epidemiologist is logging food history with an ill member of the public. In either case, the possibility that the document may someday be held to close legal scrutiny may be the furthest thing from their minds. But, while an exceedingly small percentage of food poisoning cases become legal matters, it does happen. And when it does, the documents generated by local health agencies are often front and center.

The public health documents your agency creates are most likely the most accurate collection of information--the closest thing to "the truth" that a judge or jury may get access to. Thus, making sure that those records will be admitted, and stand up to scrutiny from both sides of a legal case, is an important task. (1)

Step one is making sure that the documents are admissible--meaning that the judge will allow the jury to consider them as part of the evidence in the case. Getting into a full discussion of admissibility would require a dissection of an evidence rule, the "hearsay" rule. Each state has its own hearsay rules, but the Federal Rule, Rule 801 et. seq. serves as a workable example. Hearsay is a term that is used more often than it is understood, and this forum is not the place to delve into its finer points. In short, legal rules of evidence are designed to admit evidence deemed reliable and preclude that which is deemed unreliable. The underlying idea of the hearsay rule is that statements made out of court, orally or in writing, are generally unreliable, and therefore inadmissible. (2)

What does this mean for that environmental health inspection report, or the food history taken down by an epidemiologist? It could mean that the admissibility of these documents can be challenged in court as an out of court statement, as hearsay. Thankfully, there are a number of well-settled exceptions to the hearsay rule that will generally allow documents generated in public health investigations to be admitted. Under the Federal Rule, the most likely used enumerated exceptions would be exception No. (6) Records of regularly conducted business activity and exception No. (8) Public records and reports. Thus, a lawyer who is trying to use public health documents as evidence in court will need to convince a judge that one of these or some other exception to the hearsay rule will apply.

Once the document is in evidence, there is still the matter of its impact on the jury. There are several recommendations to be made in this regard. My first suggestion is to involve photographs wherever possible to supplement reports. For example, our firm handled a case involving an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak at a buffet-style restaurant. The buffet style of the restaurant complicated the isolation of a single suspect food. Environmental health inspectors, though, documented raw meat being stored above a ready-to-eat dessert that was one of the foods showing statistical significance as a potential source of the illnesses. A quick photograph of the condition of the walk-in cooler would have greatly reduced any confusion or dispute about the accuracy of this portion of the report. It is also particularly useful to document the gathering for testing of samples from a restaurant or home with photographs of each sample, both prior to and after proper cataloging of the samples.

Another method of increasing juror confidence in the accuracy of your agency's work is to make sure to record the author, date, and time of any notes in the file. For example, an ill person in an outbreak is likely to be questioned more than once about his or her food and exposure history. If that is the case, it is very helpful to be able to identify the date and times of those conversations, as well as the person who conducted the questioning. Not only does this data make the information uncovered more reliable, it allows for more efficient follow-up questioning, as the person with the most knowledge can be readily identified.

A final suggestion is to document clearly which personnel worked on a particular investigation, in what roles, and at what times. In this manner, the jury can get a full understanding of the thorough, careful, and coordinated work done by your agency.

It is true, and probably a relief, that only the slightest percentage of public health inspections and investigations will ever be carefully reviewed by a judge and jury. When this occurs, however, giving that judge and jury a clear, accurate, and reliable reflection of the findings your agency has made is essential.

Editor's Note: The Journal recognizes the importance of providing readers with practical and relevant legal information and is pleased to bring back the popular Legal Briefs column. In every other issue of the Journal this information will be presented by the attorneys at Seattle-based Marler Clark, LLP, PS ( Marler Clark has developed a nationally known practice in the field of food safety. They represent people who have been seriously injured or the families of those who have died after becoming ill with foodborne illness during outbreaks traced to restaurants, grocery chains, and other food suppliers.

Since joining Marler Clark in 2001, Dave Babcock's practice has focused on multiple party complex litigation, most commonly related to foodborne illness outbreaks. He has litigated against large corporations such as McDonald's, Cargill, and Yum Brands/Taco Bell, and on nationwide outbreaks including Salmonella in PCA peanut butter products (2008-2009) and Salmonella in Iowa eggs (2010). Representing children and the elderly is a central focus of Mr. Babcock's practice.

Mr. Babcock is a frequent speaker on foodborne illness and the law. He has addressed environmental health conferences, food manufacturer associations, and food safety organizations nationwide.

Dave Babcock, JD

(1) For more information on what types of public health documents are used at trial, and why and how the documents are used, please see "The Use of Public Health Data and Documents in Foodborne-Illness Litigation," Journal of Environmental Health, 69(2), 37-38.

(2) An out of court statement is actually only admissible when offered "to prove the matter asserted." This is an important, if subtle, caveat.
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Title Annotation:LEGAL BRIEFS
Author:Babcock, Dave
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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