Woodland Hills personal injury attorney Barry P. Goldberg has seen every imaginable Traffic Collision and Police Report. Depending on the agency taking the report and the seriousness of the accident, the reports can be from just a few pages to 50-60 pages. While most agencies will not even bother with a report these days unless there is a significant bodily injury or a crime committed, the reports tend to be as basic and non-determinative as possible. It should be no surprise that the Traffic Collision Report is not the final word on liability.
That said, it is always good to have the Traffic Collision Report in your favor, if possible. Insurance companies initially defer to the traffic collision report in making the initial determinations of liability. That determination can directly affect whether you can get your car fixed and whether anyone will pay for a rental car. Insurer’s tend to place too much emphasis on the traffic collision report without making independent analysis.
However, a closer look at most reports show that the investigating officer can get away with giving a “primary cause” of the accident without a full-blown analysis of fault. So, an investigating officer can state that, in his or her opinion, the way someone was parked was a “primary cause” of an accident. Most lawyers (and eventually the insurers) may conclude otherwise, that the moving vehicle should be responsible for crashing into a parked vehicle. Our office has such a case right now.
Many traffic collision reports have a rough sketch of the scene and vehicles. Those sketches often do not resemble the correct positioning of the vehicles in relation to the landscape and even the other vehicles. At best, the sketches show the direction of the vehicles before impact. On a busy freeway, it is not unusual for the California Highway Patrol to miss important witnesses to the collision in favor of getting the accident scene cleared up and not blocking traffic for too long. Participants in the accident sometimes have the contact information for witnesses that had to leave the scene. Those witnesses may well contradict conclusions in the report.
The Courts Cannot Consider Collision Report Conclusions
In order to capitalize on a favorable traffic collision report lawyers often attempt to get the report in front of the court to swing things their client’s way. In many hearings, lawyers attempt to request that the court take “judicial notice” as a determination of some fact or conclusion in the report. Generally, it is an error for a court to take judicial notice of the traffic collision report and the facts contained therein.
Neither police reports nor statements contained in such reports are subject to judicial notice. (See People v. Jones (1997) 15 Cal.4th 119, 171, fn. 17 [“we decline to take judicial notice of the truth or accuracy of an entry in a police report, because such a report is reasonably subject to dispute”] disapproved on another ground in People v. Hill (1998) 17 Cal.4th 800, 823, fn. 1; Petricka v. Department of Motor Vehicles (2001) 89 Cal.App.4th 1341, 1345, fn. 1 [“it would have been improper for the court to take judicial notice of the police report and, a fortiori, its attachments”].)
Rarely can a police report be properly authenticated for a routine judicial hearing. Attorneys often attempt to attach it to their own declaration when they do not have personal knowledge of the contents, how the report was created and maintained. Even if the report could be authenticated, the court can only take judicial notice of the existence of the report, not the truth of the matters stated in it. (See Coyne v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 1215, 1223, fn. 3.; Licudine v. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 881, 902; Klein v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. (2012) 202 Cal.App.4th 1342, 1360, fn. 6.) The mere “fact” that a police report was filed is usually of no benefit to either party.
Sometimes, a crafty lawyer can get find ways to get the report in front of the court for various reasons. For example, the official records exception to the hearsay rule, Evidence Code § 1280, permits admission of the fact of the police report, time and date it was made, nature of the investigation, and names of witnesses.” (See Coe v.San Diego (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 772, 786-788; Rupf v. Yan (2000) 85 Cal.App.4th 411, 430.) But Evidence Code section 1280 concerns admissibility of evidence, not judicial notice. By the time you are actually in trial, you might as well call the investigating officer to testify!
In the end, traffic collision reports are not determinative. If you have a good case and the traffic collision report got it wrong, you can fight your case with the assistance of an experience trial attorney. Of course, since 98% of cases are settled short of trial, it is important to help the investigating officer get the facts and witnesses right while at the scene of the collision. Also, it is sometimes permissible to provide supplemental information to the investigating office in order to “get it right.”