Admissibility of Accident Reports in a California Court
In every accident case, one of the major issues will be liability. Who caused the accident? In any settlement or trial, this will be one of the main issues. The first place most people look is the accident report prepared by law enforcement. The insurance companies place a lot of reliance on the report when they are undertaking settlement discussions. The parties involved in the accident are on the edge of their seat waiting for the report to come back, to determine who caused the accident. The accident report should provide an explanation of what was observed, based on the evidence encountered by law enforcement at the scene. This usually consists of witness statements, if any, and the statements of the parties involved in the accident. The accident report should provide a good foundation for liability. But it is not determinative. In fact, unbeknownst to most citizens and even attorneys, the accident report is not admissible into evidence in court. That's right, the same accident report that the insurance company is relying on to deny liability, is not actually allowed into evidence in court, meaning the judge or jury will not be allowed to take it into consideration in deciding the issue of liability. As shown in California Vehicle Code § 20013:
No such accident report shall be used as evidence in any trial, civil or criminal, arising out of an accident, except that the department shall furnish upon demand of any person who has, or claims to have, made such a report or upon demand of any court, a certificate showing that a specified accident report has or has not been made to the department solely to prove a compliance or failure to comply with the requirement that such a report be made to the department.
This is not only by statute, but clearly established through the case law.
“It is proper at section 20013 precludes the presence of an accident report in the jury room during deliberations lest this “official” report alone determine the verdict.” (Sherrell v. Kelso (1981) 116 Cal. App. 3d Supp. 22)
“Indeed, it is well established that traffic accident reports are not admissible in evidence.” (Box v. California Date Growers Assn., 57 Cal. App. 3d 266 (1976).)
On top of this, the officers are normally not allowed to testify as to their opinion on the cause of the accident. See Stickel v. San Diego Elec.Ry. Co. (1948) 32 Cal.2d 157 The officer can testify as to what he or she observed, but not as to what the cause was, assuming the officer did not personally observe the accident. There might be an exception to this if the officer could independently qualify as an expert witness in accident reconstruction however, but normally that label would not apply to your average police officer. Even then, if the testimony was based on, or partially based on, witness statements, the plaintiffs should have a strong argument to deny the opinion testimony.
So, the accident report is not everything. It is helpful in finding out information as to witness's that were present, statements that were made by the witness or statements that were made by the parties to the accident, but it is important to remember that it should not be seen by the jury in your case. From a public policy perspective, this makes sense. An officer is not personally present at an accident scene, and the officer's opinion should not be dispositive of fault in a personal injury case. This would not only lead to many unjust outcomes in accident cases, but it would put a tremendous burden on law enforcement in regards to resources in determining the fault of accident cases.
So, if the insurance adjuster you are working with believes they have an open and shut case in regards to liability because the accident report blames you for the accident, make sure to remind them about California Vehicle Code § 20013.