Evidence: Accident Reports and Failure to Object
This case arose out of an automobile accident in which it was alleged that defendant, Eric Johnathan Baucom (Baucom), caused a four car domino effect collision, leading to the collision of another vehicle and plaintiff Pamela Nunnery’s (Nunnery) vehicle.
At the Superior Court of Mecklenburg County, the jury found the defendant liable for the injuries sustained by the plaintiff, and the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), or alternatively, for a new trial in the negligence action. It is from the order denying his JNOV that the defendant appealed.
The facts at trial tended to show that the Nunnery’s vehicle was stopped in a line of traffic waiting for the stop light to turn green. Defendant Baucom was driving a vehicle registered to his Nursery Company, when he failed to stop and struck a vehicle, which struck the next vehicle, which in turn struck the rear of plaintiff Nunnery’s vehicle. The investigating Patrolman was Sergeant V.C. Lessane (Sgt. Lessane), who also prepared the accident report, which ultimately resulted in the issuance of a citation for failure to reduce speed to Baucom.
Following the collision, plaintiff Nunnery sought treatment from a number of different physicians concerning headaches and soreness in the neck as a result of the accident. Following the close of evidence at trial, the jury found that Baucom was negligent, and awarded a verdict providing plaintiff damages in the amount of $350,000.00. Defendant Baucom then made his motion, particularly concerning the publication of the unredacted accident report as prepared by Sgt. Lessane to the jury during deliberations.
The defendants challenged the admission of certain notations and the actual accident report itself into evidence. This business records exception contained in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8C-1, Rule 803(6), which has been upheld by case law in Wentz, 89 N.C. App. 33 (1988), allows for the introduction of the accident report (i.e. DMV-349 form), into evidence provided that the report is authenticated by the author, prepared at or near the time of the act reported, by or from information by a person with knowledge of the act, and kept in the course of a regularly conducted business activity.
In this case, the report prepared by Trooper Lessane was authenticated, and as such met the business record exception expressly allowing the use of information from those who have first-hand knowledge of the reported accident.
The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to deny the defendant’s motion because the defendant failed to object at the time the report was entered, and also failed to show prejudice as a result of the allowance of the accident report during jury deliberations. Specifically, even though there was an issue with an unredacted report being given to the jury, the defendant failed to produce any evidence that demonstrated prejudice that resulted from the erroneous receipt by the jury. Evidentiary issues arise constantly at trial, and knowing the applicable Rules of Evidence can provide a means to introduce evidence which supports your particular case. In this case, the defendant’s counsel missed a key objection at a crucial stage. Missed objections result in a failure to properly preserve the issue for appellate review, which ultimately means the defendant is stuck with whatever outcome the trial court makes on the matter.
Another key takeaway from this case is that because the business records exception allows for the use of accident reports into evidence, it is vital to understand the different notations and codes used by officers on the form. This helps in trying to discern who the officer determined was at-fault, if he was able to make that determination.