A large portion of personal injury claims arise out of traffic accidents. Oftentimes after a traffic accident occurs a police officer will issue a traffic ticket to the party that they believe to have caused the accident. An opposing party in a lawsuit might seek to introduce into evidence a traffic ticket, the results of a traffic citation or your past driving record. This can present an evidence issue for the judge in a personal injury case. The introduction of evidence is governed by statute and case law, which varies by jurisdiction. Below are a couple of common scenarios and how they are handled in both Missouri and Kansas.
Does being found guilty of a traffic violation mean you were automatically at fault?Traffic violations can be a part of proving negligence under Missouri’s negligence per se claim. In ordinary negligence claims in Missouri, the claimant has to show that
- person had a duty,
- person breached that duty, and
- this breach was the cause of claimant’s harm. In negligence per se, a law replaces the duty element of an ordinary negligence claim.
Thus, according to Condos v. Associated Transports, Inc., violation of a traffic regulation can be the basis of negligence per se. However, based on Dibrill v. Normandy Associates, Inc., for a negligence per se claim the claimant must also show
- the injured person was a member of the class of persons intended to be protected by the statute or regulation,
- the injury complained of was of the kind the statute or regulation was designed to prevent, and
- the violation of the statute or regulation was the proximate cause of the injury. Even if the claimant establishes all four elements above, a person can successfully defend themselves by asserting they had a reasonable excuse for the violation of the law.
Based on Vintila v. Drassen, a traffic regulation may be admissible in an ordinary negligence case (sometimes called “common law negligence”) as evidence of a person’s duty. Thus, a violation of that regulation would be failure to fulfill that duty. This is very similar to negligence per se, with the distinction being mainly in how the claim is pled. Of course, the claimant must also prove the rest of the elements of a negligence claim.
Important to note, in either type of negligence claim, the claimant has to prove that a violation of a law actually has occurred. If a traffic ticket (or other form of citation) has been issued, this is understandably much easier for the claimant. The converse is true if there has been no issuance of a ticket or citation. According to Hyman v. Robinson, in attempting to prove a violation, the claimant must be sure that the particular law is the law of the municipality where the accident occurred.
For both negligence per se and common law negligence claims, whether evidence of a particular person’s violation of that regulation (e.g. traffic ticket or citation) is admissible is still subject to evidence rules of admissibility (discussed in the following section).
Can the other party use your past traffic tickets against you to show you are a bad driver?In Missouri, generally the answer is no. Based on Missouri evidence case law, a person cannot introduce evidence of a traffic ticket just to suggest that you are a bad driver and thus caused an accident. The opposite is true too: you can’t use a good driving record to show that a person acted lawfully in this case. Used this way, the tickets or citations are “inadmissible character evidence.” However, traffic tickets and driving records might be admissible for other approved reasons:
- When it is claimed that an event is rare, opponent can introduce evidence of similar events to show that event is not rare
- To show a pattern of activity, scheme, or plan
- To show agency
- To show motive or intent
- When punitive damages are sought and when other similar acts are so connected to the acts pleaded, to show disposition, intention, or motive
- To show a person knew or should have known of a particular danger
In order to keep out evidence of traffic tickets, a person may argue that introduction of the tickets would be more prejudicial than probative, irrelevant, inadmissible character evidence (State v. Driscoll), and improper impeachment evidence (State v. Adams). In Stucker v. Chitwood, the court deemed a police officer’s testimony about why he did or did not issue a traffic ticket more prejudicial than probative because of the undue weight a jury gives to a police officer’s testimony.
Does being found guilty of a traffic violation mean you were automatically at fault?In Kansas, a violation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations may serve to prove that one party acted negligently per se. Based on Plains Transp. Of Kan., Inc. v. King, negligence per se has two elements:
- a violation of a statute, ordinance, or regulation, and
- the violation must be the cause of the damages resulting therefrom. Proof of a statutory traffic violation can fulfill the first element of negligence per se, according to Burns v. Benedict.
Can the other party use your past traffic tickets against you to show you are a bad driver?In Kansas most of the time the answer is no. Based on K.S.A. 60-455, a driver’s past traffic citations or criminal charges are not admissible to show that the driver has a disposition to commit a crime or civil wrong on another occasion. For example, in Gardner v. Pereboom, driver’s prior offense of reckless driving was not admissible to show that he had driven recklessly in the current case. In addition, Allen v. Ellis says the fact that a traffic ticket was not issued was not admissible evidence. However, such evidence may be admissible to prove motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.
State v. Richard lists the following steps if the court is considering allowing evidence of a crime or civil wrong:
- whether the evidence is relevant to prove a material fact,
- whether the parties disagree about the material fact,
- whether the probative value outweighs the potential undue prejudice, and
- if allowed, the court must provide a limiting instruction informing the jury of the specific purpose of the evidence. Generally, material means that the fact has a real effect on the case.