Police reports are often important evidence in car accident cases, and the admissibility of such a report was a key issue in a recent case in New Jersey, Almonte v. Ulloa Tineo, The defendant was driving through an intersection with a green light when he was struck by another vehicle on his passenger side, which drove through a red light. The impact caused defendant’s car to strike two other vehicles, including plaintiff’s parked car.
At trial, plaintiff testified that she did not witness the accident. However, she sought to introduce a police report into evidence where the responding police officer attributed fault for the accident to the defendant. The police report’s narrative included information from an unidentified witness. Over defendant’s objection, the trial court admitted the police report into evidence under the business records and public records hearsay exceptions. The trial court also admitted a letter and check sent to plaintiff from defendant’s insurer, which offered the property damage policy limits because it had determined that defendant’s car was responsible for the accident. Relying only on the police report and the insurer’s settlement offer, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of plaintiff.
On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s judgment because the documents were inadmissible to prove defendant’s negligence. Although police reports are typically admissible under the business record and public record hearsay exceptions, the trial court failed to scrutinize the hearsay statements contained within the police report. Specifically, the police report narrative was not based on the police officer’s observations but came from an unidentified witness.
In addition, relying on NJRE 408, which provides that settlement offers and negotiations cannot be used to establish liability, the Appellate Division held that the insurer’s settlement offer was inadmissible. Although the settlement check could be considered for the purposes of adjusting damages, it could not be used to determine defendant’s liability.
Thanks to Ken Eng for his contribution to this post and please write to Mike Bono for more information.