Let’s say you get into a car accident in New York State and it was the other guy’s fault. But when the police officer shows up and “investigates” he determines it was your fault. And he says so in his accident report. You sue the at-fault driver for your injuries. Can the cop’s police report come into evidence against you? Can the cop testify it was your fault?
The answer generally is, no and no. Why not? The conclusions in his report that it was your fault are “hearsay”. Further, it’s for the jury to determine whose fault it was based on the evidence. Letting the cop testify about whose fault it was would unduly influence the jury. The cop can testify only about the evidence he found at the scene, for example skid marks, the damage to the cars. He can also generally testify about what the PARTIES said to him, but not about what non-party witnesses said to him. That would be hearsay, too. Those witnesses must be brought into court to tell the jury what they saw and must be subject to cross-examination. The cop can’t tell the jury what they said because then the right of the parties to cross-examine those witnesses would be lost.
Some of these concepts were explored in the recent case of Watch v. Gertsen. In that case, the cop determined, after talking to the participants in the accident, that two motorcyclists who collided into the back of a car were at fault for following too closely. In the personal injury trial, the trial judge let the cop testify about his conclusions in the report. The jury’s verdict aligned with the cop’s conclusions. But the appellate court reversed, finding that it was error to allow the police officer to testify about fault from the accident report. And rightly so. What good is a jury trial if a cop is allowed to say whose fault it was? That’s the job of the jury, not the cop.
The cop of course can issue a ticket to the party he believes is at fault, but even that ticket won’t get into evidence in the personal injury trial unless whoever got the ticket pleads guilty to it. Even if the driver is convicted of the traffic violation, it still won’t get into evidence unless he has pleaded guilty to the charge. Why not? Well, all these rules protect our jury system. Juries are to determine fault, and cops and other law enforcement officers – stay out of it!
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Michael G. Bersani, Esq.
michaels-smolak.com Central & Syracuse NY Auto Accident Injury Lawyers
Michaels & Smolak, P.C.