Missouri Court of Appeals Again Rules That Police Officer Testimony as to Fault of Party to Accident is Inadmissible
In Ritchie v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the trial court had allowed an investigating officer to testify that the Plaintiff’s motorcycle had left the roadway in a straight line and that he had found no evidence of another vehicle forcing the Plaintiff off the road. Over objection, he was permitted to testify that, in his opinion, the cause of the accident was inattention by the Plaintiff. The jury then returned a verdict in favor of the Defendant and Plaintiff Ritchie appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that “Missouri courts have uniformly held that a police officer, especially if he or she did not witness the accident, cannot offer an opinion as to the fault of the accident.” Khan v. Gutsgell, 55 S.W.3d 440, 443 (Mo. App. E.D. 2001). This is because a jury will likely give undue weight to an officer’s assessment of fault in a traffic accident. Id. This rule applies regardless of whether the officer is testifying as an expert witness or not. Stucker v. Chitwood, 841 S.W.2d 816, 819-20 (Mo. App. S.D. 1992). The appellate Court held that the officer’s opinions and conclusions were not fact testimony of what he personally observed at the scene. The Court also found that the testimony materially affected the outcome of the trial, as the case law recognizes an officer’s opinion testimony and fault in an accident will likely be given undue weight and to significantly influence the jury’s resolution on the issue of liability. Khan, 55 S.W.3d at 443; Stucker, 841 S.W.2d at 820.