Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reference to Opinions in Police Report Prohibited at an Auto Accident Trial

In the case of Harris v. Phila. Facilities Mgmt. Corp., No. 39 C.D. 2014 (Pa. Cmwlth. Dec. 2, 2014 Simpson, McCullough, and Covey, J.J.)(Op. by McCullough, J.), the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court addressed the propriety of a reference to a police report in a jury trial arising out of a motor vehicle accident.

In this matter, the Plaintiff motorcyclists wished to make reference a police officer's observations in his police report concerning a pothole in the area of the accident, which was allegedly a central fact and/or issue in the happening of the accident.  While the trial court noted that some basic facts contained in a police report may be referenced at trial under appropriate circumstances, since the pothole issue was central to this matter, the trial court excluded the police report as a whole.

In this matter, on cross-examination by Plaintiff's counsel, a police officer witness admitted that, prior to taking the witness stand, he had referred to the police report another officer wrote up.  The testifying officer did this to refresh his recollection but stated, on the stand, that he was otherwise testifying from his memory and without reference to the report while sitting on the stand.

In Harris, the Commonwealth Court reiterated the general rule that a police accident report is inadmissible in an auto accident case as hearsay evidence. 

However the appellate court went on to find that, under Pa.R.E. 612, it was within the trial court's discretion to allow for the witness to review the police report as part of an effort to refresh the witness's recollection.  Such a refreshing of a witness's recollection could be accomplished by presenting the witness with documents to review either before the witness takes the stand, or during the time the witness is on the stand.

This decision also supports the long-standing proposition that an expert accident reconstructionist may rely upon, and refer to, a police report in reconstructing an accident.  Citing to Pa.R.E. 703, the court noted that a police report is the type of data that such an expert witness is permitted to rely upon in formulating is opinion.  Here, the defense expert merely stated that he had relied upon the police report in formulating his opinion and there was no effort on the part of that expert to simply, and impermissibly restate, opinions contained in the police report on central issues to the case.

The Harris court likewise upheld the trial court's rejection of the efforts by the Plaintiff to introduce favorable opinions contained in the police report through the testimony of the Plaintiff's experts.  The appellate court cited to 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3751(b)(4) to support the ruling that a police report prepared by a police officer who did not witness the accident is inadmissible hearsay evidence and should not be admitted into evidence.  The court also noted that a party is not allowed to get such a report into evidence in an indirect manner.

Accordingly, based upon these rulings the appellate court did not find any errors that would require the granting of a new trial as requested.

The Harris decision can be viewed online HERE.

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