Hearsay Rule, Present Sense Impression Exception in West Virginia Car Accident Cases – Browning v. Hickman

“Hearsay” is a type of evidence that generally can’t be admitted during a personal injury or other trial. It covers a wide range of statements that are offered at trial by a person other than the one who made the statement and are offered in order to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. These statements are usually inadmissible because the person against whom the statement is being offered doesn’t have the chance to cross-examine the person who actually made the statement. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, however, including for statements capturing a person’s impression of an event while or shortly after it happens. The West Virginia Supreme Court recently considered this “present sense impression” exception in a car accident case that turned on the statement of a witness that no one could locate.

wheel-1026006-mMr. Browning and Mr. Hickman were involved in a collision in Logan in October 2011. Browning was making a left turn into an intersection at the time, while Hickman was traveling straight through the intersection. The front passenger side of Hickman’s car collided with the rear passenger side of Browning’s truck. Browning later sued Hickman for negligence, alleging that Browning had the right of way at the time of the crash and that Hickman was speeding and failed to yield. Following a two-day trial on the matter, a jury disagreed.

The decision appeared to center largely on the tape of a 911 call made shortly after the accident. A woman who identified herself only as “Toni” told an emergency dispatcher that Browning’s truck had pulled in front of Hickman’s car at the last minute, causing Hickman to swerve and hit the truck. Toni said she “wasn’t from around here” and didn’t provide any contact information to later confirm her account of the accident. An official from the 911 Center authenticated the tape and Hickman was permitted to play it at trial, despite Browning’s objection.

Browning argued that the call wasn’t relevant because the question was whether he had the right of way at the time of the crash, not whether he turned in front of Hickman. The trial court said the case was broader than that single issue, however, noting that Browning also alleged that Hickman was speeding and should have kept a better look out. The trial court denied Browning’s request for a new trial after the jury ruled in favor of Hickman.

Affirming the decision on appeal, the Supreme Court said the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in allowing the 911 call evidence to be admitted. The high court said the evidence was relevant to Browning’s claim that his truck was already in the intersection when Hickman approached. It also found that the lower court didn’t abuse its discretion in finding that the tape qualified to be admitted under the present sense impression exception to the hearsay rule. “Clearly, the 911 call was placed shortly after the accident,” the Court said. “The call was made for the purpose of obtaining emergency responders to the accident scene, and the caller and the 911 operator discussed whether there were injuries.”

If you or a loved one has been injured in a crash, the West Virginia car accident lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

Negligence and Foreseeability in West Virginia Car Accident Cases – Price v. LaMaster

Comparative Negligence in West Virginia Car Accident Cases – Comer v. Bloch

Negotiating with Insurance Companies in West Virginia Car Accident Cases – Tuttle v. State Farm