Case Summary: Accident Reports as Evidence

Evidence in Car Accidents: Accident Reports

Keith v. Polier
109 N.C. App. 94 (1993)
North Carolina Court of Appeals

Background

This case arose out of a North Carolina automobile accident between the two parties. Plaintiff Judy Keith (Keith) filed a negligence claim against Jacqueline Polier (Polier), Administratrix for the estate of Patrick John Ray (Ray), seeking damages for personal injuries.

Procedural History

At the trial court, the jury was given an instruction on contributory negligence, as well as the “sudden emergency” doctrine, and entered a verdict finding that the plaintiff was not injured by the negligence of the deceased defendant, Ray. It is from the judgment entered on that verdict that the plaintiff appealed.

Facts

The facts at trial tended to show that the plaintiff stopped her vehicle at an intersection for a red traffic light. While stopped, the defendant drove his pick-up truck into the rear of the plaintiff’s vehicle. Officer Simmons, of the Raleigh Police Department, was the officer on scene at the accident and prepared the accident report. The DMV-349 report is the standard automobile accident report, and outlines what the officer observed about the accident as well as contains any statements made by the parties to the accident.

During the testimony of Officer Simmons, he read the circumstances detailing the accident directly from the DMV-349 report. This created an evidentiary issue regarding hearsay, which typically prevents a person from reading a report offered for the “truth of the matter asserted.”

Governing Law

The Federal Rules of Evidence, as incorporated into North Carolina law in N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 8, contain a provision for the inadmissibility of hearsay into evidence. “Hearsay is not admissible except as provided by statute or by these rules.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8C-1, Rule 802. However, the Rules provide a number of exceptions to the rule against hearsay. The applicable exception in this case is contained in Rule 803(6) and states that “Records of Regularly Conducted Activity” are not included in the hearsay rule. In this case, the accident report would be considered such a record.

The Sudden Emergency doctrine is applicable in situations in which the defendant is confronted with “an emergency situation not of his own making and requires defendant to act only as a reasonable person would react to similar emergency circumstances.” Massengill v. Starling, 87 N.C. App. 233, 236 (1987). For the court to apply the doctrine, the jury must find that (1) an emergency did exist, and (2) the emergency was not brought on by the defendant’s own negligence.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeals held that there was no error in allowing Officer Simmons to read the DMV-349 report into evidence. The issue of the admissibility of highway accident reports had been addressed in a prior appellate case, Wentz v. Unifi, Inc., 89 N.C. App. 33 (1988). In Wentz, the Court held that such accident reports may be admissible as a business records exception to the hearsay rule, so long as they are “authenticated by their writer, prepared at or near the time of the act(s) reported . . .” In this case, Officer Simmons properly authenticated his report, and the Court found no error in the trial court’s decision.

However, concerning the sudden emergency doctrine jury instruction, the Court of Appeals found error in the trial court’s allowance of such an instruction and ultimately granted a new trial for the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals found that in such a situation as described in the facts of this case, that Ray had reason to anticipate that the plaintiff could start moving and then suddenly stop her vehicle. The Court found that this was not an emergency and if anything, the defendant failed to keep a proper lookout and reduce speed in the time required to avoid an accident. Because this error of the court affected the jury, the Court of Appeals granted the plaintiff a new trial.


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