Thursday, November 21, 2013

No Ticket, No Compensation?

The following originally appeared in Urban Velo as part of my regular column, Cycling Legalese:
If you’re involved in an automobile/bicycle collision it is in your best interest to call the police and get a report, but how will it impact a potential claim for injury or damage compensation if the police officer doesn’t issue a ticket to the driver on the spot?
Q:After I was hit by a car, the police did not give the driver a ticket. How will that affect my ability to receive compensation from the driver for my injuries?
A traffic ticket issued to a driver for causing a crash may aid a bicyclist’s personal injury case. But, failure of the police to ticket a driver will generally have no impact at all on the cyclist’s case.
Most police officers try hard to do the right thing. But strip away the badge and the uniform and what you are left with is a fallible human being. After a crash, you may know with cosmic certainty that the driver that hit you was in the wrong. Police officers arriving after the fact will not have a clue about what happened. They may have a pissed-off, injured bicyclists telling them one thing, a frustrated, nervous driver telling them another, and a mess of backed-up city traffic. Figuring out what happened and who was at fault may not be knowable, and/or may be the least of their concerns. Sometimes the responding officer will take his or her best guess as to what happened and issue a ticket. Let the judge sort it out. Other times a cop will throw his or her hands up and keep the ticket book tucked away.
To be sure, I sometimes shake my head when the police fail to ticket a driver. It is astonishing when a driver is not ticketed, for example, after dooring a cyclist in broad daylight. Other times I suspect that a police officer holds an anti-bike prejudice. Just the other day, I was in court in a suburb of Chicago defending a bicyclist who was hit from behind by a vehicle whose driver crossed a double yellow line and hit him as the cyclist began a left turn. The officer ticketed the cyclist for failing to signal his intent to turn, even though the officer documented that witnesses reported that the cyclist had indeed signaled. The judge ultimately threw out the ticket, but, sheesh!
When a driver is ticketed after a crash, he or she will generally be given a date to appear in court and enter a plea, guilty/not guilty. It is very important that the bicyclist appear at that court date. The cyclist will be the complaining witness, without whom the prosecution will not be able to prove a traffic violation (assuming the issuing police officer did not actually witness the incident). The officer that wrote the ticket will generally not be permitted to testify as to what someone else said happened. Such testimony is considered hearsay and cannot serve as a basis for a conviction. It is a good idea to arrive at the hearing early so you or your lawyer can seek out the prosecutor and let them know that you are present and ready to testify against the driver. In city traffic court the prosecutor will have about a zillion cases he or she is dealing with at once and will likely appreciate the presence of a complaining witness willing to cooperate and explain what the case is about. Depending on what the presiding judge generally allows, the prosecutor may then seek out the driver in the courtroom and explain their options. Sometimes an agreement to plead guilty will result in a lesser punishment for the driver then a finding of guilt by the judge after a time consuming trial. In my experience, many drivers take that deal. This is important. A plea of guilty in the criminal/traffic case is admissible in evidence as an admission in the subsequent civil/personal injury case. The driver will have a very difficult time wiggling free from a claim of negligence after pleading guilty. However, a finding of guilt (or not) at trial is not admissible in the personal injury case. In most jurisdictions a jury considering the personal injury case would never learn of the earlier verdict arising from the traffic citation.

So, if the driver is ticketed after a crash, great. Go to the traffic citation hearing. If the driver does not get a ticket, do not sweat it.

1 comment:

  1. Brendan, really clear and concise explanation of the law. Bravo!


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