Police Accident Reports Mean Next to Nothing in Injury Claim
Our clients often ask us about the importance of the police report and traffic citation in an injury claim arising out of a car accident. Does the officer’s determination of who was at fault affect the outcome of the injury claim? Does it matter which driver received a ticket? Can the officer testify to what happened in the accident?
The short answer is this: the police investigation, police report, and traffic citation mean very little in a subsequent injury claim. This is true whether it is a garden variety car accident, a wrongful death case, or a tractor trailer wreck. Whatever kind of accident case you’re talking about, state statute, rules of evidence, and good common sense make police accident investigation a very minor player in the outcome of the injury claim.
First, the South Carolina Code, Section 56-5-1290, specifically prohibits the use of the police report as evidence in a civil case: a police accident report cannot be introduced into evidence, by either side. So, the police officer’s fault determination, the diagram that he draws, the description he jots down as to what happened- none come into evidence. This is a critical statute, and it makes perfect sense. Why would the police officer’s report of what happened, of which driver was at fault, and who did what come into evidence? After all, he wasn’t there to see it.
This is why Section 56-5-1290 exists: to prevent the jury from giving undue weight to the opinions of a person who did not even witness the accident firsthand. To permit a police officer—who was on the other side of town when the wreck happened, and who arrived on the scene twenty minutes after the collision—to testify to what happened, or to introduce his report into evidence, would also violate one of the truly central tenets of evidence law: the requirement of personal knowledge. Rule 602 of the South Carolina Rules of Evidence states that a person may not testify to events or facts unless he has personal knowledge of them. Is a police officer’s testimony as to what happened in a wreck, and who is at fault, based on his or her personal knowledge? Of course not: he got there twenty minutes after the fact, talked to the people who were involved, and offered an opinion about what happened. The people who were involved, along with any eyewitnesses, are the ones with personal knowledge. What the police officer puts on his report is not testimony as to facts personally known to him. It’s a opinion, and unless the police officer is a qualified as an expert (which occurs rarely), the opinions which appear in the police accident report are not coming into evidence.
Second, while we have seen trial judges permit the officer to testify as to which driver he issued a ticket or citation, this fact does not have a huge impact on trial outcomes. Frankly, we think that the proper practice is for the police officer’s issuance of a citation to be treated like his accident report: excluded from evidence, for the same reasons as the report. An officer’s decision to issue a citation in the context of a car wreck which he did not see is basically an opinion, based on occurrences he did not witness. For example: Johnny B rear-ends Susi Q. Ninety-nine times out of 100, if not 100 out of 100, the officer is going to cite Johnny B for following too closely. And ninety-nine times out of 100 he may well be right. But what if Susi Q had been in a crazed, road-rage kind of mood; what if Susi Q had flown past Johnny B, whipped right in front of him, and then slammed on her brakes because the light directly in front of all this turned red?
In that scenario—which any driver knows is more common than it should be—while Johnny B probably should have been able to stop in time regardless, is the fault really Johnny’s? Or was the wreck caused by Susi’s ridiculously aggressive driving? And should the police officer–who did not witness the accident, and who ticketed Johnny only because that’s routine police practice–be allowed to tell the jury that he ticketed Johnny? Is that fair? We don’t think so, but that’s the way it works at present, depending on the judge’s determination. In any event, even if the judge permits the officer to testify to the ticket he issued, skillful cross-examination by the lawyer can undermine the testimony to the point that the jury will not give it a huge amount of weight.
Finally, we want to reassure readers of our blog that the juries in South Carolina really do a very good job of doing what makes sense. If you have a good lawyer, who knows what he’s doing, he or she will do a good job of informing the jury about the weaknesses and unreliability of police testimony as to what happened in a wreck. And on the basis of this information, our juries here in South Carolina really are quite excellent at using their common sense, recognizing these issues, and acting accordingly.
Let us be clear: this is not a critique of police officers, who are out there doing a really tough job, keeping our communities safe, while putting themselves in harm’s way. So we’re not knocking the police. We’re simply saying that they are human beings, subject to the same limitations we all are in trying to piece together the details of events we did not see.
Fortunately, the rules and statutes in our state recognize these limitations as well. So we encourage folks not to draw conclusions about the viability of a potential claim or defense based on what the police report says. It is only one piece of the puzzle, and frankly not a very important one. What you need is a really solid, knowledgeable lawyer to discuss the situation with you. The lawyers at Traywick & Traywick are always available to talk things over with you. No appointment necessary: pick up the phone, call, and you will be directed immediately to one of us: no paralegal or case manager. We look forward to hearing from you.