WHAT, THE TICKET DOESN'T MATTER?
Have you ever been in a crash where the other person received a ticket, but their insurance company still wanted to fight whether they are at fault? Many clients are puzzled when they find out that THE TICKET DOESN’T USUALLY MATTER!.
The answer lies in the different way that the law handles a civil action between two people for damages and a� traffic charge between the Commonwealth (or state) and a ticketed driver (the defendant) . Let’s take an common case where a biker is traveling on a flat straight road and a driver in a car coming towards the bike fails to see the bike and makes a left turn across the bike’s path. The biker doesn’t have enough time to stop or avoid the collision and crashes into the side of the car, causing the biker to suffer injuries. At the scene, the officer looks at the layout, talks to the driver and biker, and writes the driver a ticket for failure to yield. The biker files a claim with the driver’s insurance company for his injuries. Done Deal, Right? Not hardly, because the insurance company doesn’t care about the ticket.
The reason: In Virginia, absent a driver pleading guilty in traffic court, the fact that the driver was ticketed IS INADMISSIBLE in any civil trial for damages. A judge or jury simply NEVER HEARS ABOUT IT!.
Are you Amazed? What could be more telling about fault than who got the ticket? The reason is that the rules are different in traffic court and civil court. Here are the three main points that make the traffic ticket inadmissible.
First, keep in mind that the issuance of a ticket is just a decision by a police officer at the scene, who rarely actually sees the crash, based upon hearing usually two very different versions of just how things happened. The officer’s job is to enforce the traffic laws of the Commonwealth, not to make a civil liability investigation for your benefit. (That is why it is important for you to get all the information you can about the scene, witnesses, statements, etc. yourself).� He doesn’t get a vote on who is civilly at fault.
Second, a traffic ticket creates a case between the Commonwealth and the defendant who was ticketed, and the purpose is for a judge to determine whether the requirements of a particular traffic statute were violated. The judge does not get into who is responsible for a crash and doesn’t really care that a crash occurred, only whether the Commonwealth has proven its case that the ticketed driver broke the law. Our biker is ONLY A WITNESS in the traffic case, as the police officer is actually bringing the case to court.� In a civil case, where our biker claims that the driver should be responsible to pay damages for the biker’s injuries, a jury (or judge) is determining whether the driver was NEGLIGENT, not whether the driver broke the law. While in some circumstances the act that would be a violation of the law ALSO makes one negligent, it is not always the same. For example, if I drive the wrong way on a one way street, I have broken the law. But if I drive the wrong way in a marked private parking lot, I have not broken any law, because the traffic laws usually don’t apply in a parking lot. (Which is why police officers may not come to a crash scene in a private lot). My actions in driving the wrong way would be negligent in both cases, but would only be a violation of the law if on the public street.
Third, there is a legal difference in the burden of proof between a traffic case and a civil case. Burden of proof is a legal concept that tries to establish “how certain” a judge or jury must be in making their decision. We have all heard the phrase, “beyond a reasonable doubt”, and that is a description of the burden of proof in a traffic or criminal case. In order for a judge to find our driver guilty of failing to yield, he must be 99% certain. However in the civil case between the biker and the driver for damages, the burden of proof is called, “preponderance of the evidence”. This means that the jury or judge need only be 51% certain that the driver was at fault in causing the crash, in order to hold the driver liable for civil damages. Quite a difference.
Three outcomes are possible in the traffic case for our driver:
1. He can plead guilty, in which case he is ADMITTING that he failed to yield.
2. He can plead not guilty, and the Judge could find him guilty.
3. He can plead not guilty, and the Judge could find him not guilty.
In the case where the driver pleads guilty, because of his admission of failing to yield, a civil jury in the trial for damages by the biker, WILL be allowed to hear about the ticket and the guilty plea, because the driver is admitting his conduct.
In the other two cases, a civil jury WILL NOT hear about the traffic ticket or the outcome of the traffic trial. Because the job of the jury is to determine whether the driver was NEGLIGENT, not whether the driver BROKE THE LAW, the decision by a judge on a violation of a statute is not relevant. To allow this information to become known could result in the jury simply following the judge’s traffic decision instead of listening to the evidence and reaching their own decision about what happened in the case and about who was at fault.
Simply put, Being at Fault is a separate decision from Violating a Traffic Law.�
Now that I have said all that, IT IS STILL IMPORTANT WHO GOT THE TICKET to your lawyer. Why:
1. Because the insurance company for the driver will give some credence to the officer’s interpretation of the events and whether their driver got a ticket, in deciding HOW HARD to fight on fault. Most cases are fought on the issue of how badly hurt the victim is, NOT on who is at fault.
2. Your lawyer may want to have a court reporter at the traffic trial for the driver, so that the driver’s testimony will be carved in stone. He may say something in his traffic case that will nail him in the civil case, even if he pleads not guilty, and what he says IS admissible.
3. Let’s not forget that if IT IS YOU that got the ticket, and you were the injured person, your lawyer’s job just got a whole lot tougher.
So, what did we learn grasshopper?
1. Just because the other driver got the ticket, the fight isn’t over.
2. If the other driver got the ticket, it doesn’t mean he is automatically at fault.
3. If you got the ticket, DON’T EVER PLEAD GUILTY!
Please Be Careful Out There!!