What evidence will be admissible in Court is often a central issue in prosecuting or defending motor vehicle accident cases. Lay persons, who are often those who end up on our juries, have a tendency to think that issuance of a traffic citation to one party or the conviction of a misdemeanor traffic offense, is evidence of liability. Additionally, jurors tend to give more weight to the investigating officer’s conclusions when determining liability. This article will provide a brief overview on Nevada’s laws regarding the admissibility of traffic accident reports, traffic citations, the investigating officer’s conclusions contained in those reports, and convictions for misdemeanor traffic offenses.
Traffic Citations are Generally Inadmissible. An Investigating Officer’s Testimony Regarding Fault is Generally Inadmissible when based on Hearsay.
It is the function of the trier of fact to decide who and what caused the motor vehicle accident. The case of Frias v. Valle, 101 Nev. 219 (1985) best illustrates the Nevada Court’s hesitation to admit Traffic Accident Reports and Traffic Citations, and places limits on an investigating officer’s testimony regarding liability.
In the Frias case, a taxicab owned and operated by ABC Union Cab rear-ended a small pick-up truck. The trial court admitted the traffic accident report into evidence, which was prepared by the investigating officer. The jury awarded the truck driver damages and ABC Cab appealed.
On appeal, the ABC Cab argued that the trial court erred in admitting the officer’s traffic accident report into evidence. The Nevada Supreme Court ultimately agreed with ABC Cab and ruled that “the conclusions of [the] Officer, based upon statements of third parties and a cursory inspection of the scene, did not qualify him to testify as to who was at fault. “Frias, at 221. Further, the Court went on to rule that “evidence of the traffic citation was also inadmissible.” Id. To be clear, an investigating officer’s statements are still admissible as percipient witness testimony. However, Frias places limits on an officer’s testimony as to who was at fault when the officer’s conclusions are reliant on hearsay statements and not based on first-hand knowledge.
Conviction of a Misdemeanor Traffic Offense is Insufficient to Trigger Imposed Liability under NRS §41.133
The case of Langon v. Matamoros, 121 Nev. 142 (2005) also demonstrates the Nevada Court’s reluctance to admit evidence of traffic citations and convictions of misdemeanor traffic offenses. In this case, Plaintiff Langon sued Defendant Matamoros for personal injuries stemming from a motor vehicle accident. The police issued Matamoros a citation for failure to yield the right of way. Matamoros pleaded no contest, forfeited bail and paid a fine in connection with the citation. Id. at 142. The jury returned a defense verdict in favor of Matamoros and Langon appealed.
On appeal, Langon argued that under NRS 41.133, Matamoros’ no contest plea and forfeiture of bail is conclusive evidence that she is liable for Langon’s alleged injuries. NRS 41.133 states, “If an offender has been convicted of a crime which resulted in the injury to the victim, the judgment of conviction is conclusive evidence of all facts necessary to impose civil liability for the injury.” The Court did not agree with Langon, finding that Langon’s interpretation was not consistent with the legislative intent of NRS §41.133, which was intended to protect victims of violent crimes, and directly conflicted with NRS §41.141, Nevada’s modified comparative negligence statute that insulates a defendant from liability when the plaintiff’s comparative negligence is ruled more than 50%. Id. at 145. In conclusion, the Court held that because NRS §41.133 does not apply to misdemeanor traffic offenses, convictions entered upon traffic citations may not be used to conclusively establish civil liability.
Although NRS 41.133 cannot be used to establish civil liability as a matter of law for misdemeanor traffic convictions, opposing counsel may still comment on the misdemeanor at the time of trial. Defense counsel should therefore file all appropriate pre-trial motions to prevent the inclusion of such evidence as being prejudicial to the defendant.