CAN A POLICE OFFICER TESTIFY ABOUT WHICH DRIVER CAUSED AN ACCIDENT?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Stucker v. Chitwood, 841 S.W.2d 816 (Mo. Ct. App. 1992).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a police officer testify about which driver caused an accident?
Under Missouri law, an individual may be qualified to testify as an expert on a subject, such as medical procedures or accident reconstructions. Id. at 818. Such experts are allowed to express opinions, even when those opinions overlap with an issue the jury must decide. Id. In this case, a police officer was asked if Defendant’s driving contributed to the accident at issue. Id. at 819. The court ultimately found that it was an error to allow the officer to answer this question, largely for two reasons. Id. at 819-20. First, jurors, as drivers themselves, do not need assistance from an expert is determining if a driver acted carelessly. Id. at 819. Second, because police officers (and particularly highway patrol troopers) are likely to command unusually significant influence with testimony about accidents, this evidence may need to be kept from the jury to prevent “merely telling the jury what result to reach,” without the jury considering the evidence probably before them. Id.
This case arose from a fatal motor vehicle collision. Id. at 817. Just before the crash, Plaintiff was attempting to pass a vehicle by driving in the left-hand lane of a two-way highway. Id. Defendant, operating a semi-truck and trailer, attempted to slam on his brakes upon seeing Plaintiff. Id. The driver then skidded into the wrong lane of travel, where his truck struck Plaintiff’s vehicle. Id. Plaintiff was killed as a result of the accident. Id. At trail, a highway trooper was called to testify about the accident. Id. at 818. Over the objection of Plaintiff, the trooper was asked and allowed to answer a question about whether Defendant was at fault for the accident. Id. The trooper responded that the Defendant could not have done anything to prevent the collision. Id. The jury ultimately agreed with this finding, and returned a verdict in favor of Defendant. Id.
The court began by noting that an expert witness, unlike a fact witness, can testify regarding an “ultimate issue” of a case—such as which driver is at-fault in an auto accident. Id. However, such opinions are only admitted when “it is clear that the jurors themselves are not capable, for want of experience of knowledge of the subject, to draw the correct conclusions from the facts.” Id. at 819. Thus, even if an expert is qualified, he or she should not give opinions that the jury is equally suited to make. Id.
In this case, the court noted that most jurors will be experienced drivers. Id. at 820. This makes jurors “capable of reaching their own conclusions with regard to fault and degree of fault” in an automobile-collision case. Id. Thus, even though the trooper was likely qualified as an expert (the court noted that the record was too vague to be certain, but it didn’t matter because the result would be the same), the jury needed no assistance in the form of the trooper’s opinion as to which driver was at fault. Id.
The court also noted that another rule of evidence came into play when dealing with police officers: undue weight and confusion. Id. Jurors hold police officers and highway patrol troopers in high regard, particularly when it comes to police reports and investigating accidents. Id. While this deference is understandable, it is also dangerous. Id. A responding officer has a multitude of tasks when dealing with an accident, including ensuring the safety of the drivers involved, the safety of other motorists using the roadway, and his or her own safety in completing all of these tasks. Id. At best, determining which driver is at fault falls into sixth or seventh place on this list. Id. Further, an officer is relying on a variety of information in arriving at a conclusion, some of which may be found to be inaccurate or incomplete upon a further and more complete investigation. Id. All of these factors suggest that a jury may “accord undue weight to [an officer]’s testimony and fail to give proper consideration to the rest of the evidence.” Id. Thus, even aside from the lack of need for the opinion, it should not have been offered because of the risk of undue influence upon the jury. Id.