Police Officer Testimony In Car Accident Cases

Police Officer Testimony

Police officers frequently testify in Atlanta car accident cases. In a typical car accident case, the police officer interviews the involved drivers, their passengers, and the eyewitnesses. Next, the police officer inspects the vehicle damage. Once the police officer collects that information, they will form an opinion about how the collision occurred. That opinion forms the basis for the police officer’s testimony.

If the car accident caused a serious injury or death, the police department will typically conduct a more thorough investigation. For instance, the Georgia State Patrol’s Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team (SCRT) often obtains electronic data from the involved vehicles to determine the vehicles speed and turning maneuvers immediately prior to the wreck. The SCRT team may also collect measurements at the scene and inspect the road damage in order to determine which driver caused the wreck. The SCRT team officers will then testify about their findings.

Sometimes, the SCRT team’s findings are favorable to the plaintiff. Other times, the SCRT team’s findings are more favorable to the defense. The party that is harmed by the SCRT team’s findings typically challenges those findings in court.

A recent Georgia Court of Appeals case (Golden Peanut Co. v. Miller, 870 S.E.2d 511 (2022) defined the scope of permissible police officer testimony in car accident cases.

Case Facts

Golden Peanut Co. v. Miller arose out of a collision between a tractor-trailer driven by Defendant Lloy White and a passenger vehicle driven by Kristie Miller, which resulted in the death of Miller and serious injuries to her son. Mrs. Miller’s estate sued the truck driver, Mr. White, and his employer, Archer Daniels Midland Company d/b/a Golden Peanuts.

The record revealed that at 8:15 p.m., Mr. White made a left turn to head northbound onto a two-lane road. Miller’s vehicle, which was traveling southbound, collided with the side of the trailer. Sergeant Chad Fallin of the Georgia State Patrol’s (GSP’s) Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team (SCRT) did a walk-through of the crash site that night, and was the lead investigator of a SCRT team that performed a number of tests and issued a SCRT report.

Sergeant Fallin testified that Mrs. Miller must have been distracted by “something” even though there was no evidence that she was distracted at the time of the wreck. He also testified that the truck driver had the right of way because he had “already establish[ed] his lane of travel []” by the time that Mrs. Miller’s vehicle came into view.

The estate moved to exclude certain portions of Sergeant Fallin’s testimony and the SCRT report on the grounds that they were unreliable. The estate specifically challenged Fallin’s conclusion that Miller was distracted by “something,” and his conclusion that Miller did not see the trailer for “unknown reasons” because Fallin failed to perform nighttime testing in reaching his conclusions. The plaintiff also moved to exclude Fallin’s opinion that the truck driver had the right of way at the time of the collision.

Trial Court Decision

The trial court denied the estate’s motion. They held that Fallin was permitted to testify that the truck driver had the “right of way.” They also noted that at Fallin’s deposition, Fallin stood by the conclusions in the SCRT report that Miller was distracted by “something,” despite acknowledging that there was no evidence that Miller was distracted at the time of the wreck.

Georgia Court of Appeals Decision

The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision. The Court seemed to concede that Fallin’s testimony was not very persuasive. However, they held that “the trial court may not exclude an otherwise sufficient expert opinion simply because it believes that the opinion is not – in its view – particularly strong or persuasive.” Instead, they said, it is up to the jury to determine how much weight they should give to Fallin’s testimony.

The Court also agreed that it was permissible for Fallin to testify that the truck driver had the “right of way.” The court reasoned:

“Where the investigating officer’s opinion is based on his examination of physical evidence at the scene, and not merely on statements of witnesses, and where he does not opine on the ultimate issue of a party’s negligence, his opinion on the cause of the accident is admissible as an assessment of fact and not a legal conclusion or a conclusion constituting a mixture of law and fact. Thus, an investigating officer may testify that one of the drivers was the sole cause of the accident; that the light was red; or that both drivers lost control.”

Impact of the Georgia Court of Appeals Decision

The holdings in Golden Peanut Co. v. Miller are a double-edged sword for plaintiff’s lawyers. For instance, if the police officer has reached conclusions that are favorable to the plaintiff’s claims, that decision will give plaintiff’s lawyers more leeway to have the officer’s conclusions admitted at trial. Disputed liability cases, on the other hand, just got more challenging for plaintiff’s lawyers.

For instance, in a pedestrian-auto case, let’s say that the police officer gave the plaintiff a traffic citation for crossing the road where there was no crosswalk even though other witnesses testified that the plaintiff entered the road under safe conditions. That citation might not be admissible, for reasons that fall outside the scope of this blog post. However, the police officer may still be able to testify that the vehicle that struck the pedestrian had the right of way and that the pedestrian was the sole cause of the accident. If that evidence reaches the jury, they might conclude that the pedestrian was at least 50% responsible for causing the collision, and, thus, unable to recover any damages.

Our Atlanta Car Accident Lawyers Can Help You

At Graham Scofield Injury Lawyers, our Atlanta car accident lawyers have successfully represented many car accident victims. We may be able to help you even if the police officer believed that you caused the car accident.

We’re not afraid to litigate a challenging liability case with significant damages like Mrs. Miller’s case. Call us today at (404) 939-9470 to discuss your car accident case. Also, you may fill-out our online contact form to schedule a free case review with our team. If you’ve got questions, we’ve got the answers.

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