Police Reports Are a Joke — Don’t Count on Them
The Problem with Police Reports
Most people believe that once the police put a driver at fault for a crash, that's the final word, and the offending driver is on the hook for any damage they caused. They're not. In fact, placing too much stock in police reports is one of the biggest mistakes that accident victims can make.
Let's look at why police reports aren't worth they paper they're printed on. The general public overlooks four crucial issues with police reports: these include:
- Investigators make mistakes.
- Authorities don't always have to tools available to properly investigate a crash
- Insurance companies do what they can to influence the outcome of police investigations
- Even when a crash report puts a driver at fault, insurance companies are free to dispute the reports findings.
I've seen each of these issues crop up during my four decades of commercial vehicle accident litigation. Rather than just discuss the problems in the abstract, I plan to use examples I've encountered in the real world to demonstrate each issue and discuss how they impact victims.
Police Investigators Make Mistakes More Often than People Realize
I'm don't mean to disparage the work of law enforcement, but one of the reasons victims cannot rely on police reports is because investigators make mistakes.
For example, some time ago, the family of a deceased motorcyclist reached out to me for help with a matter, involving a collision between their loved one and an 18-wheeler. The first thing I did was pull a copy of the police report to see what authorities believed happened in the crash. According to the official version of events, a motorcyclist was driving down the highway at a high rate of speed, weaving in and out of traffic, when he fatally collided with a turning 18-wheeler. Based upon the police report, the motorcyclist was to blame for the crash, which claimed his life.
The family knew what the authorities believed, but insisted that it was completely out of character for the deceased motorcyclist. They were adamant that their loved one always operated his motorcycle in a safe, responsible manner. He was even involved in several organizations that promoted motorcycle safety. The person they described was the complete opposite of the stereotypical, thrill-seeking biker described in the police report, so I told them that my office would look into the matter, if for no other reason that to try to reconcile these contradictory stories.
I started with a request for the investigator's full open records packet. This packet includes all of the investigator's notes, witness statements, and other evidence that ends up summarized in a police report. The first thing that jumped out at me is that there was absolutely no physical evidence taken from the 18-wheeler involved in the crash. In proper investigations, authorities will pull data from the truck's computer to determine the speed of the vehicle, whether or not the brakes were applied, and other relevant information about what was going on in the vehicle at the time of the crash. There was none of that in this case.
The packet also had notes about a witness interview, which was the basis for the investigators' determination that the motorcyclist was speeding. The motorcyclist passed a witness, who was driving on the same road, shortly before the crash occurred. According to the notes, the motorist estimated that the motorcyclist was going 15-20 mph faster than he was when the motorcyclist passed him, while weaving in and out of traffic.
Next, I looked to see if investigators missed any evidence, when putting their report together. Sure enough, the company that operated the 18-wheeler used a real-time GPS system to track their drivers. I obtained that data and it showed quite clearly that that truck driver didn't bother stopping when leaving a hotel parking lot. In short, he likely pulled out in front of the motorcyclist without even looking.
I also took the time to interview the witness, whose statements authorities used to claim that the motorcyclist was speeding and weaving through traffic. His story completely contradicted the police report. It was true that the motorcyclist passed him going 15-20 mph faster than he was, but that was because this motorist was towing a large load and traveling 20 mph under the speed limit. He was noted how courteous the biker was, properly signaling before he passed, and they he and the driver even exchanged a brief, friendly wave.
With this evidence in hand, I reached out to the lead investigator. He was surprised by my findings, but promised to look into the matter. To his credit, he admitted that he had been called away to another crash, and handed parts of the investigation, such as interviewing witnesses off to a less experienced colleague. That less experienced investigator didn't think much of motorcyclists, so he shoe-horned every new piece of evidence to fit a preconceived narrative of a joyriding biker who caused his own wreck.
The investigator was a stand-up guy, who took the time to update the crash report, in light of the new evidence. A report that initially blamed the motorcyclist for his own death, instead placed the blame on the truck driver who, without waring, pulled out in front of him.
While it may be unsettling to think about, this isn't the only time in my career when I've come across a police report that got the entire accident wrong. In this particular case, not only was the police report not the final word on the crash, it wasn't even the final police report. Had the victim's family believed the police report, it's likely that the truck driver would have suffered no consequences for careless actions that claimed a person's life.
Authorities Don't Always Have the Proper Tools to Investigate a Crash
Law enforcement's main priority is apprehending criminals. They dedicate their training and resources to that end. While the state requires officers to investigate crashes, due to the state's interest obtaining crash data, it's obviously not the top priority of any law enforcement agency. I witnessed this first-hand when a family hired me to represent them in a commercial truck accident case out of El Paso.
Early in my firm's investigation, I noticed that the police investigation made no mention of the commercial truck's engine control module (ECM). This is highly unusual, because it's important to know the truck's speed, braking, and other information at the time of a crash, all of which the ECM records. When I reached out to investigators to find out where the ECM was, they told me that the trucking company had it.
I learned that the local investigators knew from their training that they needed ECM data to complete their report, but they lacked the equipment and the training necessary to extract the data. The trucking company offered to help them out, by pulling the data and passing it along to investigators. Authorities accepted this offer and even thanked them, not realizing that the agreement they made was akin to allowing a criminal suspect to dust the scene for fingerprints.
With more resources for training and equipment, the crash investigators would have never allowed the trucking company to keep custody of the ECM, let alone provide them with data from it. Had I not been brought in, whether investigators received all of the data they needed to complete an accurate crash report would have depended entirely on the trucking company whose driver was accused of causing the crash. Talk about a conflict of interest.
Insurance Companies Routinely Influence Police Investigations
It's not only the police who respond to crashes. If there is a serious injury or death in a crash involving a commercial vehicle, invariably, the driver's insurance company will dispatch an investigator and, often, a defense attorney to the scene. They do so to protect their interests, which don't align with those of the accident victim.
In my previous example, the only reason the trucking company was in a position to offer to gather vital evidence for the police is because their attorney was already on the crash scene. That's just one example of how insurance company investigators and attorneys influence police reports.
Another instance occurred in a case where a truck driver took a turn too fast, had his trailer lose traction, and ended up skidding into the opposite lane of travel, striking an oncoming motorist. Anyone with eyes could see that had the truck driver slowed down going into the turn, the trailer would not have lost traction, and the accident would not have happened.
Allow me to pause a moment to give a little background, in case you've never seen a Texas crash report. Most of a crash report contains general information such as the time of day, road conditions, and facts about those involved in the crash. There is also a narrative section, where the officer describes their assessment of the crash. In addition, officers give their opinion about factors they believe caused the crash and those that may have contributed.
Under the circumstances of this crash, it would have been difficult for the insurance company's investigators to persuade the investigating officer that the truck driver didn't cause this crash. Instead, they took a different approach. Insurance company representatives may have advised the driver to emphasize to police during his interview just how slick the roads were a very light rain that occurred a few minutes before the crash. Also, the representatives did their best to not-so-subtly hint at how they found the roads to be slick because of the mist that had fallen. While the officers conducted their investigation, numerous people one the scene were saying the equivalent of "This road sure is wet and slick."
This may sound like an absurd ruse, but it worked. The officer put in his report that it was raining at the time of the crash. One of the shortcomings of Texas crash reports is that they don't allow investigators to specify the severity of the weather. It was barely a momentary mist on this evening, but it read on the crash report the same as if it had been raining cats and dogs.
The trucker's insurance company went to this trouble because when the other driver filed a claim against them, they denied it on the grounds that the weather caused the crash, not their driver. My future client didn't understand what happened. The police report clearly put the truck driver at fault, but the trucker's insurance company told him they weren't to blame.
The reason the insurance company went to all of that trouble was that as soon as they influenced the investigating officer to put down that it had been raining, this gave them a plausible enough excuse to deny the claim. They didn't even need the officer to say that their driver wasn't at fault for the crash, just to give them the thinnest grounds to avoid responsibility. It's doubtful the investigator saw any harm writing that it was raining at the time of the crash, nor could he have foreseen that a throwaway concession would cause problems for the victim down the line.
Now my firm was able to expose this flimsy excuse, despite the extra headache it caused the victim; they weren't harmed in the long-run, but if they had tried to fight the insurance company on their own, it's possible that they could have been cheated, due to the way an insurance company influenced the police investigation.
Defendants Can Dispute Unfavorable Crash Reports
This leads to the real problem with relying on crash reports — they don't force a trucking company or their insurer to accept responsibility for a crash. Only a jury has the final word over who caused a crash.
Particularly, in crashes that involve commercial vehicles, many victims assume that holding the driver who hurt them accountable works like it does in a typical car crash. They file a claim with the insurance company, wait for a police report, and haggle with an agent. In the vast majority of these situations, insurance companies plan to dispute liability, regardless of who the police find to be at fault.
They're free to do so because the law grants them the presumption of innocence. Put another way, until a jury says otherwise, the default position is that they are not responsible for the wreck. Given that this is how the law works, police reports can often make a victim's situation worse. While the victim waits for a police report that an insurance company is sure to dispute, the insurance company uses this time to conduct their own investigation, which lays the groundwork for their defense.
For example, an insurance company defense attorney, whom I've litigated against in the past, reached out to my firm one time for help. Not only was the police report damning for his client (the insurance company), but their own investigation didn't really give the attorney a lot to work with. In short, the attorney knew his client was responsible for the crash, but his job was to find some way to shift the blame somewhere else. When he relayed the facts of the case to me, I said, "It sounds like you should admit that your driver's fault." The other end of the phone went silent for a moment. After that pause, the defense attorney thanked me for taking his call and said, "Don't worry. I'll think of something."
This defense attorney isn't an outlier. He only said the quiet part out loud. Particularly, when a crash results in a serious injury or death, this attorney's attitude shows just how useless a police report really is. It doesn't matter what the report says, the trucking company and their insurer "will think of something." If the police report doesn't persuade the other side to do the right thing and admit fault, is it even worth the paper it's printed on? I certainly don't think so.