Valedez v. Watkins Motor Lines – Crash Report Conclusions Improperly Admitted

A man seriously injured in a semi-truck crash will have a second chance to try his case, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled conclusions of fault by the investigating officer were improperly admitted by the defense.
In Valedez v. Watkins Motor Lines, et al., the trial court ruled because the investigating officer was unavailable to offer testimony in the case, his conclusions of fault, noted in the crash report, were inadmissible per hearsay rules.

Our Charlotte truck accident lawyers understand the issue was the roundabout way the defense attorney introduced those conclusions in court, despite the order and over the repeated objections of the plaintiff’s counsel.

The case stemmed from a 2006 crash involving a semi-truck, driven by one of the defendants, and a towing vehicle, driven by the plaintiff.

Court records indicate in the early morning hours, when the incident occurred, the plaintiff was hauling a vehicle purchased at auction by his employer. A co-worker was ahead of him, hauling a separate vehicle. Prior to the crash, both the plaintiff and his co-worker indicated they affixed brake lights to the vehicle on the trailer.

Around 2 a.m., the pair proceeded to attempt to exit the highway. The plaintiff testified in doing so, he slowed to about 55 mph. He testified at this time, the vehicle he was towing was struck from behind by the semi-truck driver, tossing his vehicle into a ditch. The crash resulted in serious injuries and chronic back pain that required him to quit his job and take a lesser-paying one.

He sued the trucker and his employer for negligence. At the start of trial, plaintiffs sought to exclude parts of the crash report that indicated the officer’s opinions regarding fault. The court excluded all of it, due to the officer’s unavailability to discuss those conclusions.

The trucker, meanwhile, testified the truck had been stopped completely on the exit ramp and that he never saw any brake lights.

The investigating officer noted in his crash report that no brake light switches were ever recovered. The plaintiff contended they were likely destroyed in the crash.

At trial, the plaintiff counsel sought to refute the trucker’s statement regarding the plaintiff’s vehicle being stopped. He questioned a sergeant who had reviewed the crash report, and asked whether there was any notation in the report regarding the vehicle being stopped. The sergeant said the defendant never mentioned to the officer that the vehicle he’d hit was stopped, and further the officer never checked the box on the crash report to indicate the plaintiff’s vehicle was improperly stopped on the highway.

The defense argued this opened the door for further introduction of evidence regarding the officer’s conclusions. The defense noted that other boxes on the crash report pertaining to fault were checked. Those included boxes for plaintiff vehicle defects and improper lane use or change. The officer did not check boxes that would tend to indicate the defendant was at-fault.

The jury returned a verdict apportioning no fault to either party, meaning the plaintiff was not entitled to receive compensation. He appealed on the ground that evidence of the officer’s conclusions noted in the crash were improperly admitted. The appellate court agreed.

The court held that the introduction of evidence contained in the crash report specifically to refute the testimony of the trucker that the vehicle had been stopped did not open the door to the defense’s more extensive line of questioning on the issue. Therefore, the verdict was reversed and the case remanded.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Valedez v. Watkins Motor Lines, et al., July 11, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
Pouzanova v. Morton: Punitive Damages in Car Accident Cases, July 8, 2014, North Carolina Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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