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Are government crash reports admissible as evidence in personal injury litigation?

In our last post, we mentioned a recently released NTSB report which provided numerous details about a crash out in Florida last year involving a Tesla Model S. As we noted, the report shows that the driver was found to have ignored warnings provided by the Autopilot system, but the NTSB provided no definitive conclusion about what actually caused the crash.

Government reports like this one can potentially be useful in building a personal injury case, but not every aspect of these reports can be used. Government records of crash investigations may be admitted into evidence, but there are limitations as to what may be admitted from these reports. 

Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, only factual findings resulting from government investigations under authority granted by law may be admitted into evidence. Assuming a government investigation is properly made, an important issue that can come up is the reliability and trustworthiness of the investigation.

There are several factors that can reflect the trustworthiness of a government investigation. These include: the timeliness of the investigation with respect to the accident; the skill, ability expertise, and qualifications of government officials to comprehensively investigate and report on the issues at play; and whether there may have been any bias present. Determining whether there are any trustworthiness issues at play is important before seeking to introduce the evidence at trial.

Another issue is the nature of the contents of the report. The basic distinction to be made is between factual findings, which may be admitted into evidence, and legal conclusions, which may not. We’ll say more about this issue in our next post. 

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