Clients are always surprised and frustrated to learn that the jury is not allowed to hear that the other driver was issued a traffic ticket—often for following too close or inattentive driving in a rear-end collision, or for disregarding a traffic signal in an intersection collision. Almost always, such evidence will be excluded by the judge at a jury trial.
There are two main reasons why this is the case. First, most drivers just pay the ticket rather than contest it, and there is a state statute that expressly allows them to enter a “no contest” plea without the traffic conviction being used against them to prove fault in a later civil action.
Second, as to the opinions of the investigating police officer
contained within the accident report, unless the officer happened to actually be an eyewitness to the crash, his or her opinions are viewed by the court as based only on after-the-fact hearsay provided by the involved drivers or any eyewitnesses to the accident.
The judge excludes the officer’s conclusion based on hearsay, because of a belief that the jury should be allowed to draw its own conclusions about fault after hearing all of the testimony from those that actually observed the events leading up to the collision. The court does not want the jury’s role as the finder of fact and determination of the credibility of witnesses to be unduly influenced by conclusions drawn by the investigating officer, when the officer as an after-the-fact participant is in no better position than the jury to make those calls.
In addition, traffic citations issued to a driver involved in an accident for technical law violations, as distinct from moving violations, such as operating one’s vehicle without a license or without proof of insurance, are also excluded from evidence and kept from the jury.
Clients are frustrated to learn this as well, because they are of the view that the person shouldn’t have been out on the road, and if they weren’t on the road the accident wouldn’t have happened, right? Unfortunately, that view of causation of an accident does not carry the day under Wisconsin law. After all, irrespective of whether someone has a valid license with them or not, if their vehicle is rear-ended when stopped at a red light, any technical law violation did not contribute to the other driver wrongfully running into their vehicle.
Due to the above rules of evidence, in many personal injury automobile accident cases that proceed to a jury trial, the investigating police officer isn’t even called as a witness at trial, because what they are allowed to testify about is limited. Notwithstanding those limitations, however, the officer can still be an important witness at trial. For example, the officer is allowed to testify about the Rules of the Road, such as who had the right of way just prior to the collision, the fact that a motorist has a right to assume that other drivers will obey the rules of the road, a driver’s duty to stop for red lights or stop signs, to slow down even when not driving in excess of the posted speed if road or weather conditions call for a reduced speed, the physical lay-out of the scene, posted speed limits in the area, a driver’s duty to pay attention to the road ahead or to leave adequate stopping distance between vehicles, and observations of the parties at the scene.
In other words, while you may not be able to get into evidence the fact that the other driver was given a ticket or that the police officer believed that driver to be at fault, the officer can still be of help in establishing the standard of care owed by that driver, which is then supplemented by your own testimony, independent witnesses to the accident, if any, and other physical facts of the accident that can be used to try to get the jury to reach the same conclusion that the officer detailed in his or her report.
Short of trial, such as during the informal claim settlement process that takes place before a lawsuit is filed
the insurance company will most often rely on the investigating officer’s determination of fault as contained within the accident report in evaluating your personal injury claim, even though such evidence may not be admissible at trial.
Lastly, in very serious motor vehicle accident situations, the responding police or sheriff’s department will usually dispatch an investigating officer or deputy with accident reconstruction education, training or experience. Since this individual is an “expert” in that field, his or her findings and opinions, unlike those of an officer who does not have those additional qualifications, would likely be admissible at trial under different rules of evidence applicable only to expert opinion testimony.
Do you have a pending personal injury automobile claim? Unsure of your options? Contact Waukesha Personal Injury Attorney Jean J. Brown of Jastroch & LaBarge personal injury attorneys for a no fee initial consultation to discuss your need.
By Jean J. Brown
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