When a car accident happens in Florida, a police officer who arrives at the scene typically compiles an accident report providing details related to the accident based on information gathered at the scene, including witness statements. In Sottilaro v. Figueroa, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals explains when and how the statements included in such a report can be used at trial.
Maricela Figueroa, the personal representative of the Estate of Christopher Cepeda, sued Defendants Denise and Phillip Sottilaro for wrongful death in an action arising from an accident in which Ms. Sottilaro hit fourteen-year-old pedestrian Christopher Cepeda with her motor vehicle, causing his death. A police officer who arrived at the scene following the accident created a traffic fatality investigation report based in part on sworn testimony by four of Cepeda’s friends who were walking with him at the time of the accident and who indicated that he was looking down at his phone and texting while crossing the highway where he was struck by the Sottilaros’ car.
Under Section 316.066(5), Florida Statutes (2010), a “crash report made by a person involved in a crash and any statement made by such person to a law enforcement officer for the purpose of completing a crash report” cannot be used as evidence in a subsequent trial. Pursuant to this so-called “accident report privilege,” the trial court ruled that Defendants’ attorney could not use the traffic fatality investigation report to impeach the testimony of one of Cepeda’s friends who witnessed the accident and gave a sworn statement to the police. After the ruling, the witness testified that he wasn’t sure whether Cepeda was texting at the time of the accident. A Florida jury found Sottilaro 70 percent responsible for Cepeda’s death and awarded the Estate $50,733.59 for past medical bills and $1.325 million for pain and suffering.
On appeal, the Second District agreed with Defendants that the trial court wrongly interpreted the accident report privilege in disallowing use of the investigation report for impeachment purposes. Citing the Fifth District’s opinion in State v. Cino, the Court noted that the privilege is intended to “ensure that the state does not violate an individual’s constitutional privilege against self-incrimination…” As a result, according to the Court, the privilege only applies to the owner, driver or occupant of a car involved in a accident.
In reaching this decision, the Court distinguished the case from Williams v. Scott, a 1963 Second District decision concerning the admissibility of a statement given to an investigating officer by a pedestrian who was struck by the defendant. While the statement was deemed inadmissable in that case, the Court found the ruling inapplicable in this case because while “motorists and pedestrians have reciprocal rights and responsibilities and are held to the same standard of care…. witnesses do not have those same rights and responsibilities.” As a result, the Court reversed the jury decision and remanded the case for a new trial.
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