Joplin car accident attorney

In order to recover after a car accident, your Joplin car accident attorney will tell you that proving fault is paramount.

Liability cannot be placed on anyone until it is determined who caused the accident or put another way, whose negligence lead to your injuries.  The person who is determined to be at fault is the person responsible for reimbursing the victim for their damages. 

One issue that may arise in a car accident case is whether the testimony of the police officer who arrived at the scene can be used in court to prove fault. This post will discuss a case that dealt with that very issue.

Motorcycle versus unidentified vehicle

In the case of Richey v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Billy Richey was traveling on his motorcycle on a rural stretch of road when, according to him, he entered a bend in the highway and an unknown driver swerved into his lane. To avoid the collision Richey left the road and crashed.

A sheriff deputy found Richey lying unconscious on the roadway. Because there didn’t appear to be another driver involved, Richey was charged with careless and imprudent driving, a misdemeanor, because he struck a ditch and endangered the property of another.  He was also charged with having an improper license.

Phantom vehicle claim involving police testimony of fault

Richey claimed there was another vehicle involved and it was that vehicle that caused him to leave the road and damage the property of another.  However, because the vehicle allegedly left the scene and could not be identified, it was crucial for Richey to provide proof that another vehicle was actually involved.

Unfortunate for him, the Missouri State Highway Patrol who investigate at the scene testified that he found no evidence of another vehicle. The issue became whether the officer’s testimony was admissible at trial that, in his opinion, the accident was caused by the inattention of Richey.

Richey appealed the decision to admit the officer’s testimony

The trial court allowed the officer’s testimony at trial and the jury returned a verdict against Richey.  He appealed the decision, specifically objecting to the admission of the testimony. The appellate court agreed with Richey, finding that the officer’s testimony was based only on his opinions and conclusions about what happened, not simply what he observed at the scene. Essentially, the officer did not personally witness the accident so he could not offer factual testimony regarding fault.

Investigating officer is not a necessary expert

In this case, the officer only came to the scene after the accident, so his testimony was only based on his opinions regarding fault. Only experts are allowed to offer opinion evidence in court. In jury cases, testimony from an expert is only necessary when there is an issue that the jurors would be incapable of understanding or drawing proper conclusions without the assistance of an expert on that issue.

The court determined that a jury, typically comprising adult drivers, would be able to reach its own conclusions regarding fault in an accident case. As a result, the appellate court in Richey’s case found that the officer’s opinion testimony was inadmissible and would most likely be given undue weight, improperly influencing the jury’s decision on the issue of liability.

Why does determining fault matter so much?

The issue of fault is the most important aspect of a lawsuit because without knowing who the party is you should sue, you cannot recover.  If you do not determine who that person or entity is, that party could escape financial liability for the accident.

If more than one party is accused of liability, determining who is at fault requires identifying the levels of fault. In other words, each party will only be responsible for the amount of the damages that can be attributed to his or her actions.

How to go about proving fault

Proving fault in the legal context discovering and offering evidence.  The necessary evidence typically includes photos of the accident scene and injuries, eyewitness testimony and police reports. Depending on the applicable legal standard in your state, fault can be established either proven beyond any reasonable doubt or through clear and convincing evidence.  Either way, the standard of proof is relatively low as the allegations of fault do not have to be indisputable.

If you have questions regarding car accidents or any other personal injury matters in Arkansas or Missouri, please contact the Cottrell Law Office for a free consultation. You can contact us either online or by calling us toll-free at (888) 433-4861.

Author Photo

Wesley Cottrell

Wes Cottrell earned his B.A. from Pittsburg State University in 1981 and his J.D. from the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas in 1985. He was admitted to practice law in Kansas in 1986, in Missouri in 1987, in Arkansas in 1989, and Oklahoma in 1993. He is licensed to practice law in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, eastern Arkansas, western Arkansas, and western Missouri. He was Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Crawford County, Kansas from 1987-1989.

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