Personal injury lawsuits based on car or truck accidents generally start with emergency responders. In addition to paramedics, police officers may also respond to an accident, and may do so even if it is not severe enough to warrant an ambulance. Part of an officer’s duties in responding to an accident will be writing a police report and possibly issuing tickets. These reports and tickets may seem like extremely important pieces of information, but it is not uncommon for either or both documents to be kept away from the jury. Below is a brief overview of the role of police reports and citations in personal injury lawsuits.
Police reports are brief summaries of the accidents written by responding officers. The responding officer will take statements from witnesses and parties and reach a very hasty conclusion about what caused the accident. This report may seem like a key piece of evidence, but in practice, these reports are often of little to no use. The accuracy of these reports are generally very poor. The officer is working very quickly, trying to clear the area, summon paramedics, and radio for tow trucks. In the frenzy, there is little time for a detailed investigation. It is not uncommon for the officer to not even get talk to both parties, particularly if one of the individuals is injured. Officers are simply too busy to devote much time into investigating a crash and police reports suffer from this lack of attention to detail.
There are also several obstacles to getting a police report admitted into evidence at trial, as noted in McGrath v. Mance. First, the reports are generally considered hearsay. This is hearsay in the legal sense, not in the common usage of the term. Legal hearsay is any statement that is both made outside of court and offered to “prove the truth of the matter asserted.” This simply means that the statement is offered to prove that that statement is true. Police reports are ripe with hearsay, as they are the statements of the officer about what he or she believes happened. Thus, neither side can offer the report to prove what happened, but would instead have to call the officer to testify at trial. To make matters even worse, police reports commonly contain statements of others about what happened. Again, these statements cannot be used to prove what caused the accident or what happened to constitute the accident.
Another huge hurdle preventing the introduction of police reports is that such reports contain improper opinions. Except for expert witnesses, witnesses cannot generally offer an opinion on an “ultimate issue” of a case. In an automobile accident case, an example of an ultimate issue would be whether or not a driver was at fault in an accident. Police reports state opinions on what causes the accident, but most officers are not qualified as experts on accident reconstruction or analysis, meaning they cannot be expert witnesses. Thus, as was the case in Morlan v. Smith, the report must be kept from the jury because it attempts to answer questions that the jurors alone must answer.
Any tickets issued by the officer are also likely not of much evidentiary value. When an officer issues a citation, he or she is not “proving” what actually happened; instead, the ticket is really just a guess. The party that is issued the ticket is presumed innocent and the state, city, or county (depending on the charge and what department the issuing officer works for) must prove that the individual actually violated the law. This is often too difficult to prove, resulting in the ticket being dismissed or otherwise done away with by the judge. This means that the ticket cannot be offered as evidence that one party was at fault over the other.
In some instances, the subject-matter of the ticket may also make up part of a plaintiff’s claim. This is true in cases of negligence per se. These cases require the plaintiff to prove that the defendant violated a law, which resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. Again, the fact that a defendant does or does not get a traffic ticket is of little help to a plaintiff. Instead, the plaintiff must prove to the jury that the defendant preformed all the necessary actions which violated the law, such as following too closely or speeding. Here, the plaintiff doesn’t want to mix the state’s case with the civil lawsuit for another reason: the burden of proof. A plaintiff only needs to convince a jury that his or her story is more likely than not true, or 51% in the plaintiff’s favor. In a criminal case, including a traffic ticket, the crime must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, or roughly 95%. A plaintiff would be taking on a much higher burden if he or she depended on the state’s traffic citation. Instead, a defendant may well be found not guilty of the traffic offense but still liable under a theory of negligence per se, because the burdens are so different.
Traffic citations and police reports are common documents in a personal injury case. However, these documents are often much less decisive than you might think. Individuals may be attributed fault in a police report, but still be able to recover significant damages at trial. Likewise, a defendant may not be issued a ticket, but still found liable for an accident in a civil lawsuit. Experienced legal counsel can use police reports and citations to help gain an important understanding of what happened to cause an accident while preventing the inaccuracies within the report for harming a case. Don’t let a negative police report scare you away from contacting an attorney when you have been injured in a truck accident or car crash.