In a 2010 decision, Peterson v. Foley, 77 Mass. App. Ct. 348, the Appeals Court in Massachusetts examined whether a police officer who responded to an accident (but who did not observe the accident firsthand) could offer testimony in a civil case regarding the cause of an auto accident. The Appeals Court determined that, absent some specific evidence regarding specific training or experience, a police officer cannot give an opinion as to the cause of an accident.
Facts of Peterson v. Foley
In Peterson, the injured plaintiff Wyatt Peterson brought a suit against Catherine Foley. In the suit, Peterson claimed the defendant Foley caused Peterson to crash his car by abruptly pulling out of a side street in front of him, causing him to swerve into a tree. At trial, Foley’s attorney cross-examined Officer Dolan, a police officer that responded to the accident, about his opinion regarding the cause of the accident. Despite an objection by Peterson, Officer Dolan was allowed to testify that it was his opinion that a combination of speed, a wet roadway, a bald front tire on Peterson’s vehicle, and inexperience was the cause of the accident. There was no testimony that Officer Dolan had any training or experience with accident reconstruction.
Decision of Peterson v. Foley
The Peterson Court noted that, like other lay witness who actually observe a motor vehicle in motion, police officers might be able to issue an opinion on issues such as the estimated speed of a moving vehicle. But accident reconstruction is different in that it involves the laws of physics dealing with motion, momentum, energy, and inertia, and that mathematical formulae are used to arrive at conclusions regarding the cause of an accident. The Court found that the evidence did not show Dolan had any knowledge or experience in determining the cause of accidents using these laws and formulae. The appellate court concluded that the trial court improperly allowed Officer Dolan to testify regarding the cause of this accident.
Impact of Peterson v. Foley
Peterson serves as a cautionary case about ensuring the witnesses you or your attorney intend to call in a car crash case are actually able to testify concerning the facts and opinions you need them to. It does not mean that an officer can never testify about the cause of an accident; however, it does mean that a party that wishes to have an officer opine on the cause of an accident must put on evidence showing that that officer has the education, training, or experience to do so. The mere fact that an officer went to a police academy or responded to hundreds of car accidents is not enough. Proper planning with your car crash attorney can ensure the evidence you need to prove your case is admitted and considered by the court.