People often call our law firm upset that the police report for their crash is wrong and incorrectly blames them for their own loss. We take these calls very seriously as we understand crash reports truly might have errors. To be perfectly clear, most people place too much stock in police reports.
While no one wants an official document saying their loved one did something they didn't do, an inaccurate police report only harms victims insofar as it means they don't know what really happened.
Police Officers Aren't Always Best Positioned to Assign Blame
Think of it this way, private investigations are conducted by accident reconstructionists who carefully collect and examine all pertinent data to get details about a crash. A crash report is written by the onsite police officer who is specifically trained and provided the tools to enforce laws. In short, they are two different types of professionals trained to look for different things.
Unlike a crash inspector, an officer usually lacks the skill to inspect a wrecked car for a manufacturing defect, pull engine control module (ECM) data, or laser map the crash scene for reconstruction. In fact, police stations rarely have the needed equipment to retrieve ECM data from vehicles.
Will an Officer Ever Change a Police Report Finding?
Let's walk through an example together.
A vehicle is driving at 4:30 am on a farm-to-market road. The vehicle suddenly veers off the road, across the shoulder into a tree, seriously injuring the driver and leaving them incapacitated. A good samaritan driving several yards back sees the sudden crash and calls 911. When emergency services arrive, the bystander says "I think they fell asleep. They just suddenly drove right off the road."
First, comes the police report for the crash. It might say "the driver fell asleep at the wheel causing the sudden change in direction and the resulting crash." Then, a family member gets a copy of the police report and is shocked. They know the driver is a very safety-conscious person, works an early shift, and has an established routine. The injured driver wakes up at 3 am every morning, jogs on a treadmill for 30 minutes, takes a shower, eats breakfast, and drinks a large coffee before heading to work. Based on what they know of their loved one, there is absolutely zero chance, the driver fell asleep.
Naturally, this family member will call the police officer and share the information about the routine and dispute the conclusion. Then it is completely up to the officer what they will do with the family member's information. The officer might make a note and amend the report, and they might not. But it's doubtful the police will reopen the investigation. In fact, the office might turn around and say, hey if you have evidence contrary to the report, they can change the conclusion. Now the problem is back on the family. It's on them to prove that driver error didn't cause their loved one's crash.
How Should Attorneys Respond When a Person Calls Alleging an Error in Their Police Report?
That's when you call an attorney. An attorney will react one of two ways. Unfortunately, most attorneys would look at the police report and say there is nothing we can do, have a nice day.
If we received a call in such a matter, our approach would be a little different. We would listen closely to the family member's story and certainly agree, with this fact pattern, that someone who woke up from a full night's sleep an hour and a half before the wreck would suddenly fall asleep. We would be curious to explain how a seemingly improbable driver error caused this crash.
At the very least, we would get the officer's open records packet. This contains all of the officer's notes and the evidence they gathered. It is the raw material on which the officer based their report. That is our starting point to see if there is anything in that evidence that the officer missed. We would also want to examine the vehicle, the crash scene, and the driver's medical records to see if there is another explanation for the crash in there.
You would be surprised how often you examine a crash scene and notice a defective road design, and it is surprising how often you find something is broken on the vehicle that wasn't broken due to the crash. If we find something out of place, then we've probably reached the point where it is time to call in an accident reconstructionist, who is able to identify vehicle defects and can determine the most likely cause of the crash.
If we were able to pin down that someone else is to blame for the crash, then we would reach back out to the police officer and ask them to change the report based on new evidence. However, at this point that is a secondary concern. The main objective would then be to hold the responsible party liable for their actions, which is probably going to be through a lawsuit.
Over the years, many of the cases we have litigated, started because someone said the police report got it wrong.
All of this is to say, an initial police report can miss so much of the larger story, and an in-depth crash inspection can reveal nuances, that show a driver is not responsible at all.