Police Officer’s Testimony on Fault of an Accident is Ruled Inadmissible

Billy R. Richey filed a lawsuit against State Farm Automobile Insurance Co. to recover for his injuries under the uninsured motorist coverage of his State Farm Insurance auto policy. On the evening of April 5, 2008, Richey was driving his motorcycle on a rural highway in Dade County, Mo. Richey suffered extensive injuries as a result of this incident and sought uninsured motorist coverage. Insurance coverage was denied, which led to the lawsuit.

At trial, Richey testified that he was returning home on his motorcycle after visiting a relative. As he approached a bend in the highway, an unknown driver (referred to by the parties as the “phantom vehicle”) traveling in the opposite direction swerved into Richey’s lane. Richey stated that he could have either driven off the road or hit the oncoming car head-on.  Richey steered his motorcycle to the right to avoid the other car and upon leaving the road he crashed into a ditch and was seriously injured. The phantom driver left the scene.

A deputy sheriff found Richey lying unconscious partially on the roadway. Richey was charged with a Class A misdemeanor of careless and imprudent driving as a result of the accident.  The charge specifically stated that Richey drove off the roadway and struck a ditch and thereby endangered the property of another or the life and land of any person. He was also charged with having an improper license.

The issue in this case is whether it was admissible for the Missouri State Highway Patrol officer who had investigated the accident to testify at trial that he found no evidence of another vehicle forcing Richey off the road and over objection he was permitted to testify that in his opinion, the cause of the accident was inattention by Richey. The jury returned a verdict in favor of State Farm. Richey appealed.

The appeals panel found that the officer’s opinions and conclusions were not factual testimony of what he personally observed at the scene. He came to the scene after this incident. Testimony from an expert witness should not be admitted unless it is clear that the jurors themselves weren’t capable of drawing correct conclusions from the facts. The appellate court wrote, “In this era of widespread highway travel and numerous highway collisions, a jury, usually composed of adult drivers for the most part, is capable of reaching its own conclusions with regard to fault and degree of fault in a case of this type.”

Based on the foregoing, the officer’s testimony in which he opined the accident was caused solely by Richey’s inattentive driving was inadmissible and the trial court abused its discretion in admitting it. Moreover, the testimony materially affected the outcome of the trial, as the case law recognizes an officer’s opinion testimony on fault in an accident would likely be given undue weight and significantly influence the jury’s resolution on the issue of liability.

Richey v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., ED101584 (Mo. Ct. App. Feb. 2, 2016).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling automobile accident cases, jury trials, civil jury trials, motorcycle accident cases, bicycle accident cases and pedestrian accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Northlake, Schiller Park, Schaumburg, Melrose Park, Maywood, Justice, Bridgeview, Summit, Bedford Park, Oak Lawn, Orland Park, Worth, Prospect Heights, Palos Heights, Hillside, Hinsdale, Hoffman Estates, south Barrington, Barrington Hills, Berwyn, Bensenville, Bellwood, Lansing and Lincolnshire, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been a member of the Missouri and Illinois bars since 1976.

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