How Accident Reports and Voir Dire Can Play a Role in Your Settlement
Joines v. Moffitt
226 N.C. App. 61 (2013)
North Carolina Court of Appeals
This case arose out of an automobile accident between Jackie Joines (Joines) plaintiff, and Brittany Moffitt (Moffitt) defendant. Joines was on his motorcycle when Moffitt’s vehicle struck him and knocked him off his motorcycle.
At the trial court, the Superior Court of Alexander County entered judgment upon a jury verdict which denied recovery to the plaintiff due to contributory negligence. It is from that order that Joines appealed.
At trial, the facts tended to show that while the plaintiff was moving into the left turning lane at an intersection, the defendant merged onto the highway, where her vehicle struck Joines. The investigating officer, Mike Allen of the Mooresville Police Department (Officer Allen), prepared the accident report after interviewing the defendant and two other witnesses. Joines was not interviewed because he was receiving medical attention. As a result of the collision, Joines suffered injuries to his lower leg, which ultimately required amputation below the knee of his right leg. The facts also tended to indicate that Plaintiff was operating his motorcycle left of center, and passing stopped vehicles in the turning lane shortly before colliding with the defendant’s vehicle.
The plaintiff argued on appeal that the trial court erred in admitting the accident report, specifically the narrative of Officer Allen, and also the hand-drawn diagram of the officer, as it constituted inadmissible hearsay. The plaintiff also argued on appeal that he was not given ample opportunity to conduct voir dire of Officer Allen before the trial court terminated such examination.
The Federal Rules of Evidence, as incorporated into North Carolina law in N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 8, contain a provision for the inadmissibility of hearsay into evidence. “Hearsay is not admissible except as provided by statute or by these rules.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8C-1, Rule 802. However, the Rules provide a number of exceptions to the rule against hearsay. The applicable exception in this case is contained in Rule 803(6) and provides that records of regularly conducted business activities are admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule, as long as they are properly authenticated.
The authentication process requires showing that the report was (1) “prepared at or near the time of the act(s) reported; (2) prepared by or from information transmitted by a person with knowledge of the act(s); and (3) kept in the course of a regularly conducted business activity, with such being a regular practice of that business activity.” Wentz v. Unifi, Inc., 89 N.C. App. 33 (1988). However, if a document can meet these criteria, it may nevertheless be inadmissible if the circumstances surround the preparation of the report indicate a lack of trustworthiness.
Voir dire is a legal term which translates closely to “to speak the truth.” It is a process during a jury trial which allows an opposing party to question a witness or try to determine the truth of their statements. In this case, the first trial resulted in a mistrial, and because the same presiding judge sat for the second trial, he ended plaintiff’s voir dire examination of Officer Allen as duplicitous. However, plaintiff was provided the full opportunity to cross-examine Officer Allen in the jury’s presence, and, as such, limiting the voir dire under those circumstances was not an abuse of discretion.
The Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the trial court’s decision. The Court found that Officer Allen prepared both the narrative and diagram contained in the report, using information from three separate parties at the scene of the accident. It also found that the plaintiff was not interviewed because he was receiving medical attention, and that fact does not on its own render the report untrustworthy. The Court also found that there was sufficient information to lead the jury to conclude that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent in operating his motorcycle.
The Court also denied Joines’ claim that the voir dire limitation was detrimental to his case. There was opportunity for cross-examination during the trial, and any issues regarding the narrative or diagram that Officer Allen included in the accident report could have been discussed at that time.