When it comes to civil litigation pertaining to a car accident, one of the most important pieces of evidence is a crash report. A crash report contains information related to the accident such as weather conditions when the accident occurred and notes on facts of the accident such as which parts of the cars involved were damaged. It can also include witness testimony and even the opinion of the officer filling out the report.
This last point is one that can become contentious should a case reach trial and the plaintiff or defense wants to introduce the report as evidence. If an officer at the scene of the accident gives their opinion as to who was to blame for the crash, it could greatly sway the jurors one way or the other.
While expert testimony is allowed under California law, whether or not the officer in question qualifies as an expert is up for debate.
What Qualifies Someone to Testify as an Expert?
According to California law,
“A person is qualified to testify as an expert if he has special knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education sufficient to qualify him as an expert on the subject to which his testimony relates.”
Some could interpret the above definition to mean that one would need training above what a typical officer receives in order to be considered an expert. Accident reconstructionist training, for example, would almost certainly qualify an officer as an expert.
On the other hand, one could argue that having filed a certain number of crash reports in the course of their job would qualify an officer as an expert based on their experience. As you can see the point is not black and white and could be contentious at trial, especially given the weight expert witness testimony carries in such cases.
The ultimate decision of whether or not to admit a police officer’s opinion in a crash report lies with the presiding judge. Because the law isn’t entirely clear and because a variety of circumstances can be at play in a case, judicial discretion has typically been quite broad.
There are a couple of options a judge has when considering whether or not to allow the opinion of an officer in a crash report to be admitted as evidence:
- The judge could admit the opinion and grant that the officer is an expert
- The judge could admit the report but redact the officer’s opinions from the report (note that facts as recorded by the officer would still be left in the report)
In California, depending on the circumstances, judges have done both—sometimes admitting opinions submitted via crash reports and other times redacting.
The Importance of Competent Representation
The issue of whether or not a police officer’s opinion will be admitted in a crash report as expert testimony highlights the importance of hiring a qualified personal injury lawyer to represent you. Not every lawyer will have the experience and skill necessary to effectively argue why the opinions of responding officers should or should not be included.
It takes an immense amount of time and energy to research the history of the officer who conducted and filed the report and determine whether or not they qualify as an expert. If a judge deems that the officer in question is not an expert, a qualified lawyer will know the next steps to take in order to secure an expert to testify on your behalf.
A lawyer who is well connected with a vast field of experts is crucial to achieving a positive outcome in your case. Finally, in every personal injury case, and car accident cases in particular, time is of the essence. The sooner you hire a lawyer, the better your chances of winning your case.