Case Summary: Evidence and the Competency of an Accident Report

Evidence and the Competency of an Accident Report

Blackwell v. Hatley
202 N.C. App. 208 (2010)
North Carolina Court of Appeals

Background

This case arose out of an automobile accident which occurred on May 21, 2004. It was alleged that defendants, the town of Landis and its municipal employee, the driver of a pick-up pulling a trailer, Timothy Allen Hatley (Hatley), caused injuries to plaintiff Josie McIlwan Blackwell (Blackwell) as a result of the motor vehicle accident.

Procedural History

Plaintiff Blackwell filed a negligence action against the several defendants for injuries arising from an automobile accident which they allegedly caused. The Rowan County Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Facts

The plaintiff was traveling in the town of Landis, where after she entered an intersection, her vehicle was struck by defendant Hartley’s pick-up truck. In her complaint, the plaintiff named Hatley as defendant for negligent operation of motor vehicle, and also alleged that the town of Landis was negligent in enforcing a town ordinance which required property owners to keep vegetation trimmed,. As a result of the town’s negligence and the overgrown vegetation, Blackwell’s view of the roadway was obstructed.

The evidence presented at trial from two separate witnesses who did not know either party estimated Hatley’s speed at no more than 35 miles per hour. This proved conclusive because in North Carolina, under the ruling in Insurance Co. v. Chantos, 298 N.C. 246, 250 (1979), a person of ordinary intelligence and experience is competent to state his opinion as to the speed of a vehicle when has a reasonable opportunity to observe vehicle and judge speed.

However, the plaintiff argued that her expert witness, Ryan McMahan, who testified otherwise about the speed of the vehicle, created a genuine issue of material fact regarding the speed of the Hatley vehicle. McMahan, using accident reconstruction techniques, testified that the speed of the Hatley vehicle was between 53 and 62 mph, as compared to the no more than 35 mph that the eyewitnesses both testified to.

Governing Law

North Carolina case law, in State v. Wells, 52 N.C. App. 311, holds that the testimony of investigating officers of the condition and position of the vehicle and various other facts observed by him at the scene of an accident is allowed, but the officer’s testimony as to conclusions drawn from those facts is not competent, and therefore inadmissible.

This can essentially be understood in a quote from Shaw v. Sylvester, 253 N.C. 176, which states:

“One who does not see a vehicle in motion is not permitted to give an opinion to its speed. A witness who investigates but does not see a wreck may describe to the jury the signs, marks, and conditions he found at the scene, including damage to the vehicle involved. From these, however, he cannot give an opinion as to its speed. The jury is just as well qualified as the witness to determine what inferences the facts will permit or require.”

The ruling in Shaw was overruled by the North Carolina General Assembly when it enacted N.C. Gen. State. §8C-1, Rule 702(i), which allows a witness qualified as an expert in accident reconstruction to give opinion testimony regarding the speed of a vehicle, even if the witness did not observe the vehicle in motion. However, this change in the law only applied to offenses committed on or after December 6, 2006.

Conclusion

In this case, the Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the ruling of the trial court, which granted summary judgment to the defendants. The Court found that the testimony of the two eyewitnesses regarding the speed of Hatley’s truck and trailer was admissible, but that the expert witness testimony that the plaintiff introduced concerning the speed of the truck was inadmissible. This is because of the date of the accident. The accident occurred before N.C. Gen. Stat. §8C-1, Rule 702(i) was in force, and thus, an expert witness could not testify as to the speed of a vehicle he did not personally see in motion.

Key Takeaways of this Case

The key to this case was contained in the evidence introduced by the parties. Knowing what evidence can help or hurt your car accident case, and the admissibility of such evidence, serves to resolve some of the unknowns present in a motor vehicle negligence action. Because McMahan’s testimony was regarding Hatley’s speed, and not general principles of physics, it was inadmissible.

This case has several other evidentiary issues which the plaintiff alleged, but after analysis of each, the Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.


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