Evidence in car wreck cases

Car wrecks

Evidence in car wreck cases

On June 30, 2020, in the case of Murray v. Gray, the Mississippi Court of Appeals addressed some common evidentiary objections in car wreck cases.

In that case, a car being driven by Murray collided with a truck driven by Parker and owned by Gray.

The pivotal issue was whether Murray’s car entered Parker’s lane or vice versa.

Murray had little recollection of what happened. Parker, on the other hand, testified that Murray’s car veered into his lane of traffic and hit his truck.

A highway trooper arrived on the scene and gathered evidence. At trial, several common objections arose as to testimony about the accident.

After a jury returned a verdict for the defendants, Murray appealed.

What Parker told the trooper.

After Murray rested, the defendants called Trooper Lucas to testify. Defense counsel asked Lucas what Parker told him about the car wreck when they talked at the scene, and Murray asserted a hearsay objection.

Defense counsel responded, “Judge, this would be potentially an admission against interest, but this would be information obtained during the course of his investigation.”

The circuit court overruled Murray’s objection, and Lucas testified, “I asked [Parker] what happened. He stated to me that the car come in on him and he swerved right to avoid the car.”

The Court of Appeals found error in the lower court’s ruling. The Court held: “Parker’s statement plainly was not an ‘admission against interest.’ Parker told Lucas that Murray caused the car wreck. The statement was a self-serving one in Parker’s interest.”

The defendants also argued that Lucas’s testimony was admissible under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 803(6), an exception to the hearsay rule for “Records of a Regularly Conducted Activity.”

The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, holding simply enough that Lucas’s trial testimony was not a “record.” Lucas simply repeated on the witness stand what Parker had said on the side of the road. Parker’s statement was not memorialized in any record.

“Moreover, even if Parker’s statement had been memorialized, it still would not have been admissible under Rule 803(6). That exception to the hearsay rule does not necessarily permit the introduction of ‘all the contents’ of a record of a regularly conducted activity.”

“Mere recitations of statements of others (i.e., hearsay within hearsay) are not admissible simply just because they are written down or typed in such a record.”

The trooper’s conclusion about who caused the car wreck.

Again, over Murray’s objection, the circuit court admitted into evidence Trooper Lucas’s Uniform Crash Report that reflected his conclusions that Murray’s car crossed the center line and caused the collision and that Parker’s truck never crossed the center line.

And, again, the Court of Appeals held that the circuit court erred in doing so.

On appeal, the defense relied upon Rule 803(8) of the Mississippi Rules of Evidence and the case of Rebelwood Apartments LP v. English, 48 So.3d 483 (Miss. 2010), in which the Mississippi Supreme Court admitted certain police reports into evidence pursuant to that Rule.

Rebelwood is worth reading on the this issue if you anticipate an argument at trial about the admissibility of a police report, but in Murray, the Court of Appeals found it to be inapplicable.

Specifically, the Court stated: “This case raises a different issue than Rebelwood. The JPD reports in Rebelwood compiled evidence gathered by the investigating officers and reached certain factual conclusions. But the JPD reports did not offer expert opinions.”

“The UCR in this case, in contrast, includes not only evidence based on Trooper Lucas’s direct observations of the crash scene but also a narrative and diagram that essentially reconstruct the subject crash based on Lucas’s opinions as to how that crash occurred. This is a material difference between this case and Rebelwood.”

The Court concluded: “Similarly, although Trooper Lucas had substantial experience investigating accidents and preparing accident reports, there was no evidence that he was qualified as an expert in accident reconstruction.”

“Accordingly, Murray properly objected to the admission of the UCR because that document’s narrative and diagram reflected Lucas’s otherwise inadmissible opinions regarding the vehicles’ paths, causation, and fault. Lucas was not qualified to offer such opinions.”

Rulings of another court regarding Murray’s expert.

The circuit court allowed defense counsel to cross-examine Murray’s expert about rulings of other courts that found his opinions in those cases to be inadmissible. Finding no Mississippi authority on that specific issue, the Court of Appeals looked to a federal court ruling with which it agreed:

“Any attempt to present a Daubert ruling of another court would be an attempt to circumvent this court’s role as the ‘gatekeeper’ in this case by asking the jurors to substitute the judgment of another court, in another case, about whether an expert is qualified.”

As a result, the Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to the circuit court.

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