Delaware Trial Handbook § 20:12. NEGATIVE EVIDENCE

“Negative evidence” is testimony that an alleged fact did not exist or that an alleged event did not occur. There may be in an issue in a case, for example, as to whether a bell rang or a horn sounded or whether something could or could not be seen. To prove the absence of such sight or sound, testimony may be offered by witnesses who did not see or hear the alleged sight or sound.

Negative evidence is admissible if it is relevant.138 Whether it is relevant will depend on whether a witness had the opportunity to observe the event. If it is determined that the evidence is relevant and so admissible, then it becomes a question for the trier of fact to determine what weight should be given to the testimony.

Historically, courts have stated that negative evidence has little value, since the failure of a witness to see or hear the event may have been the result of inattention, imperfect senses or faulty recollection.139 Consistent with this, courts in the past instructed juries that where there was both negative evidence and positive (or direct) evidence of the event of equal credibility, the positive evidence was entitled to greater weight than the negative evidence,140 although   surrounding circumstances might be shown which strengthen the testimony, for example, that the witness was concentrating on’ seeing or hearing the event.141 Such a jury instruction has since been struck down as being an improper comment upon the evidence by the court.142 Of course, this does not prevent parties from arguing these points to a jury.

138. See D.R.E. 401.

139. Philadelphia, B. & W. R. Co. v. Gatta, 85 A. 721, 730 (Del. 1913); Queen Anne’s R. Co. v. Reed, 59 A. 860, 863 (Del. 1905); Dineen v. City & Suburban Cab Co., 175 A.2d 39, 41 (Del. Super. 1961).

140. Philadelphia, B. & W. R. Co. v. Gatta, 85 A. 721, 730-31 (Del. 1913); Gray v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 139 A. 66, 77 (Del. Super. 1926); Igle v. People’s R. Co., 93 A. 666, 669 (Del. Super. 1915); McGowan v. Wilmington & P. Traction Co., 92 A. 1015, 1018 (Del. Super. 1914); Travers v. Hartman, 92 A. 855, 858 (Del. Super. 1914); Riccio v. People’s R. Co., 82 A. 604, 607 (Del. Super. 1912); Culbert v. Wilmington & P. Traction Co., 82 A. 1081, 1085 (Del. Super. 1912); McCartney v. Peoples R. Co., 78 A. 771, 773 (Del. Super. 1911); Campbell v. Walker, 78 A. 601, 604 (Del. Super. 1910); Truman v. Wilmington C. R. Co., 78 A. 636, 637 (Del. Super. 1908), aff’d, 72 A. 93 (Del. 1908); Lenkewicz v. Wilmington C. R. Co.74 A. 11 (Del. Super. 1908); Ewans v. Wilmington C. R. Co., 80 A. 634, 635 (Del. Super. 1907); White v. Wilmington C. R. Co., 63 A. 931, 935 (Del. Super. 1906); Carswell v. Wilmington, 43 A. 169, 170 (Del. Super. 1897); Mills v. Wilmington C. R. Co., 40 A. 1114, 1115 (Del. Super. 1894); Parvis v. Philadelphia, W. & B. R. Co., 17 A. 702, 704-05 (Del. Super. 1889).

141. Philadelphia, B. & W. R. Co. v. Gatta, 85 A. 721, 730-31 (Del. 1913); Queen Anne’s R. Co. v. Reed, 59 A. 860, 863 (Del. 1905). Cf. Hitchens v. Wilmington & Philadelphia Traction, Co., 138 A. 617  (Del. Super. 1927) (evidence that no warning was given, as opposed to witness not hearing the warning, was entitled to equal weight as testimony that warning was given).

142. Baltimore & O. R. Co. v. Hawke, 143 A. 27, 32 (Del. 1928).

© 2010  David L. Finger