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But Officer, Her Headlights Were Off . . .

Have you, a friend or a loved one ever been involved in a car accident – what about an automobile accident that could have been avoided but for the negligence of another driver?

I’m guessing if you have been involved in a car accident, then you know that when the police are called and arrive on the scene the responding officer attempts to gather as much information as possible about the accident and in doing so will ask for statements from all persons involved and witnesses alike.

Oftentimes, there are several versions of what really happened and because there may be a dispute as to who was at fault, it is not uncommon for many auto accident victims to find themselves embroiled in a lawsuit.

So, you may be asking yourself, well what’s the issue? Assuming, the parties cannot settle their dispute and are forced to go to court, they can hire an experienced attorney, file a lawsuit and simply tell their version of what really happened to the judge (or jury) who, with the help of evidence and witness testimony, will determine who was at fault. And, for the majority of cases, you would be right – your auto accident attorney will try to settle the case and get you the maximum damages recoverable, including pain and suffering, medical expense reimbursement and loss wages – and if the case does not settle out of court, your attorney will commence a personal injury lawsuit on your behalf.

But, what happens if one (or more) of the persons who gave statements to the responding officer dies before trial? Can the responding officer testify as to the statements that were made to him/her at the scene of the accident?

This issue of whether or not a party’s statements to a police officer after an accident should be admissible evidence at trial or properly precluded under the hearsay rule was addressed in the case of Arabatlian v. Platt. In Arabatlian, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to preclude testimony from the responding officer as to one driver’s statements made directly after the accident in a wrongful death case.

After stopping at a stop sign, Plaintiff, Kevork Arabatlian, with his wife in the passenger seat, proceeded to make a left hand turn through an intersection. Upon turning, Arabatlian hit the side of a vehicle driven by the Defendant, Laura Platt. Arabatlian said Platt’s lights were off – Platt of course said her headlights were on. Plaintiff’s wife, Zwart, died after the accident.

Plaintiff and his son filed a lawsuit against the driver Platt alleging causes of action for wrongful death, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and a survival action. Before the case was ready for trial, Mr. Arabatlian died.

After the accident the Arabatlians had given statements to the responding officer that Platt’s headlights were off. Mr. Arabatlian explained that because her headlights were off, he could not see Platt when proceeding through the intersection. Platt filed motions to preclude the officer from testifying to these statements on the grounds of hearsay. The trial court agreed but let two neighbors testify as to what they heard the Arabatlians say at the time of the accident.

Mrs. Arabatlian’s injuries and cause of death were contested at trial and ultimately the jury found in favor of Platt, that she did not negligently cause Mrs. Arabatlian’s death.

While the officer was precluded from testifying, the court allowed the testimony of the two neighbors who arrived at the accident shortly after it occurred. The neighbors testified that when they arrived at the scene, Mr. Arabatlian was screaming “no lights, no lights.”

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the trial court’s decision to preclude the officer’s testimony holding neither the “excited utterance” nor the “present sense impression” exceptions to the hearsay rule applied. Indeed, the Superior Court agreed that the officer’s proffered testimony was a “new statement made by way of explanation” not a statement made soon after or contemporaneous with the event that was occurring. For the hearsay exceptions to apply, the declarant cannot have had the time to form a reason for misstatement. In addition, the Court noted that plaintiffs did not suffer prejudice as a result of the ruling because the testimony of the neighbors – that Mr. Arabatlian claimed Platt’s headlights were off – was admitted and in essence accomplished the same task.

Copies of the Court’s opinion can be found at, Arabatlian v. Platt, PICS No. 15-0003, Pennsylvania Instant Case Service 800-276-PICS.

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