Vehicle “accidents” are not usually accidents. They are collisions that happen because one or more drivers violate road safety statutes. When someone runs through a red traffic light and slams into another vehicle that has the right of way, that is not an “accident,” but rather, the failure to abide by the safety rules of the road, which caused the collision. In South Carolina, the safety rules of the road are outlined in Title 56, South Carolina Code of Laws.
Following an auto collision, police are generally called to the scene. The officer surveys the scene and interviews the drivers, if they are able to communicate; and speaks to available witnesses. In many cases, one or more drivers has violated a road safety statute, such as speeding, failing to yield the right of way, following too closely, disregarding a traffic signal, or a host of other possible violations.
POLICE HAVE DISCRETION ON WHETHER TO WRITE A TICKET
The police officer has a choice of whether to issue a ticket . In many instances the police officer will not write a traffic ticket an act of compassion and understanding under difficult circumstances. The at-fault driver has sometimes been injured; and surely his or her insurance rates are going to increase, so the officer just lets the parties to the collision and their insurance companies work things out.
THE FORM FR-10 AND TRAFFIC COLLISION REPORT ARE NOT ADMISSIBLE IN A CIVIL COURT TRIAL FOR MONETARY DAMAGES
Form FR-10 is prepared by the officer at the scene of the collision. A copy is given to each driver. It contains the basic identifying information on the drivers, owners of the vehicles, and insurance policy information for each vehicle. In addition to preparing an FR-10, the officer prepares a more extensive Traffic Collision Report, containing narrative information and diagrams of the scene etc., which is put on file within the local police department, and also is on file with the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (SCDMV).
Neither of these documents can be admitted into evidence in a later trial in a civil court of law over bodily injury or property monetary damages. The documents contain hearsay information, since in most cases, the officer does not directly witness the collision. Unless the officer is a certified accident reconstruction expert who has performed an accident reconstruction, using professional standards of measurements and site surveying, his or her opinions on who was at fault or contributed to the collision, are likewise not admissible.
In traffic fatality cases, local police agencies call in the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Tean (MAIT). The MAIT team will come to the scene and secure the information needed to conduct a formal, professional accident reconstruction; but in ordinary cases, the police officer working the scene lacks that level of training.
The FR-10 and Traffic Collision Report are simply administrative documents used by the police agencies, the SCDMV, vehicle drivers and owners; and insurance companies to record and distribute information pertinent to the vehicle collision.
THOSE CHARGED AND GIVEN A TICKET MUST APPEAR
If the officer issues a ticket to one or more alleged at-fault drivers, those drivers must appear in court for a bench or jury trial. The ticketed person has a choice: plead guilty and receive a fine; or plead not guilty and be prosecuted for the violation in either a bench trial before the trial judge; or be tried before a jury. Jury trials in traffic court are not common, but every person who is charged with a crime gets their constitutional right to a trial by jury. Failing to appear in court can result in a person being tried in their absence and found guilty of the charges. In many municipalities, the officer acts as the officer and prosecutor when he or she goes to court. As such, the officer is charged with notifying driver and other witnesses of court appearances.
If the other drivers and witnesses fail to show up in court to testify, the officer cannot typically secure a conviction, since he or she themself cannot testify about the facts and circumstances during the collision (only after, when they pulled to the scene); and therefore, the ticket will be dismissed.
INJURED PARTIES CANNOT USE THE AT-FAULT PARTY’S TRAFFIC TICKET CONVICTION AS A SWORD IN CIVIL COURT.
“Clients are often naturally concerned about how their failure to appear in traffic court might affect their claims for damages for their causally related bodily injuries and property damage”
A guilty plea or conviction of most ordinary traffic safety statutes is not subsequently admissible in a later trial in civil court for monetary damages. Only criminal convictions and guilty pleas to crimes that carry a potential sentence of in excess of one (1) year of imprisonment can be admitted into evidence, as long as they are within the last ten (10) years.
THE AT-FAULT PARTY CANNOT USE THE DISMISSAL AS A SWORD
Just as a conviction or guilty plea is not admissible in a civil monetary damages court, dismissals are likewise not admissible. Therefore, it doesn’t hurt the injured party’s case to allow the at-fault party to get out of a traffic ticket by not showing up to testify.
SECURING A CONVICTION IN TRAFFIC COURT CAN HELP SWAY AN INSURANCE COMPANY’S DECISION ON LIABILILTY WHEN LIABILITY IS DISPUTED
There are instances in which the at-fault driver will not acknowledge fault and liability for the collision, even though objective facts point in that direction. They will plead for their insurance company to not pay the injured parties, which can create problems with insurance claims. Therefore, going to court in those instances and securing a conviction is important and valuable, since it shows that the facts were presented to a judge or jury in a magistrate’s court setting, and nevertheless, the person was convicted.
MAGISTRATE’S COURT, AN INVESTIGATIVE INITIAL DISCOVERY TOOL
The magistrates court hearing related to one or more traffic citations stemming from an auto collision can serve as an investigative and discovery tool for the attorney and the injured party. Testimony of drivers and witnesses regarding the collision is under oath. Photographs and diagrams are marked as exhibits. Judges and juries determine facts based on admitted evidence and sworn testimony.
If the person charged is denying fault and denying guilt, the magistrate’s court hearing is an excellent forum to discover his or her factual contentions. It’s a good idea to attend, to assist in securing his or her conviction to the charges. Insurance companies will disregard a driver’s baseless contentions that cannot act as a defense.
ULTIMATELY, THE JURY IN A CIVIL MONETARY DAMAGES TRIAL DECIDES WHETHER A DRIVER HAS VIOLATED A ROADWAY SAFETY STATUTE
In a civil trial for monetary damages, at the conclusions of all evidence presented by both the plaintiff and defendant, the court instructs the jury on the law, citing various potential violations of Title 56 statutes. The jury considers the evidence presented by the parties and decides whether either driver has violated a statute, when liability is disputed. When liability is not disputed in a civil trial, the defendant admits to simple negligence, and the issue is damages only.
Every situation differs. So before making any decisions in regards to your auto collision, consult experienced legal counsel. And remember, if you find that you violate a roadway safety statute and find yourself getting a traffic ticket, be nice to the adverse driver. He or she may decide not to show up at your hearing, allowing for your ticket to be dismissed.
Jody McKnight is the owner of the McKnight Law Firm, Charleston, South Carolina. His firm focuses on serious injury and wrongful death cases, arising from all causes involving negligence, including product liability, auto accidents, boat accidents, dram shop (liquor liability) matters, and premise liability cases. Mr. McKnight is an active member of the South Carolina Association for Justice, the Southern Trial Lawyers Association. He founded the Charleston Art of Trial Advocacy Workshop in Charleston, SC. He has tried numerous cases before judges and juries in South Carolina state circuit courts, as well as the United States District Court.