Eyewitness testimony – whether in a criminal or civil trial – must be weighed carefully by all involved. On one hand, the word of someone who witnesses an event firsthand is powerful in a courtroom. On the other hand, it can be notoriously inaccurate.
Last year, researchers published an article in the journal Memory that analyzed the capability of adult and child witnesses to accurately recollect events from the past and provide reliable testimony. They concluded there were gaps in what the science of memory says about reliability and how such testimony is used in trial. It’s not that firsthand accounts aren’t valuable, but they need to be properly weighed and, if necessary, challenged.
It was the fallibility of an eyewitness account that resulted in summary judgment in favor of the defense in a trucking accident case before the Mississippi Supreme Court recently. In Moreno v. TLSL, Inc., the only one independent witness who saw the trucking accident that killed two people and seriously injured a third. Unfortunately, key elements of her recollection proved unreliable, and ultimately sunk the case.
According to court records, a man was driving a pickup truck on a highway early one morning with his three co-worker passengers to a job across state lines when the vehicle was struck by a tractor-trailer that had just entered the highway. The impact of the collision killed the driver and two of the passengers. The lone surviving passenger had been asleep until seconds before impact.
Aside from the semi-truck driver, the only other witness was another driver who was behind both vehicles at the time of the wreck.
Driver’s widow filed a trucking accident lawsuit against the semi-truck driver and his employer, alleging negligence and improper inspection of the truck. Specifically, she alleged the tractor-trailer’s lights were not working at the time of the crash, which cause her husband’s death.
But there was conflicting testimony as to how the accident actually unfolded. Normally, when there is a conflict like this, it is considered a matter of fact for the jury to sort out. However, the trial court in this case determined, based on the witness testimony, plaintiff failed to make a prima facie (at first glance) case against defendant for negligence, and granted summary judgment to defense.
The semi-truck driver testified he conducted a routine test of his truck before heading out that morning and the tail lights of the truck were working fine. He said as he approached the highway intersection, he entered a yield lane, stopped and waited for two vehicles to pass before driving onto the highway. As he drove onto the highway, he said he noticed decedent’s pickup truck headlights coming over the hill, about three-fourths of a mile away. Semi-truck driver testified he was driving about 35 mph when the impact happened.
The other driver testified she was behind the pickup truck and that she saw the semi-truck fail to yield and drive directly into the pickup truck. She drew a diagram to illustrate the larger truck hitting the smaller one at an angle. She said she saw no lights on the large truck other than the headlights.
The surviving passenger stated he was asleep until just moments before the crash, when he heard the driver scream, and he didn’t see whether the lights on the truck were working.
Following discovery, defense moved for summary judgment, which trial court granted. Plaintiff appealed, asking the Mississippi Supreme Court to review whether the trial court erred. She asserted that although some testimony was conflicting, there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find in her favor.
In this case, the defendant driver testified the crash happened past the point of intersection, when decedent’s pickup struck him from behind while he was traveling about 35 mph. However, the other driver testified the truck had pulled out in front of the pickup and struck the pickup at an angle. Plaintiff conceded the other driver’s testimony was not correct because the pickup had struck the semi from the rear.
Plus, the state highway patrol had concluded the pickup truck driver caused the wreck by speeding and following too closely.
Further, while the surviving passenger testified the pickup truck driver couldn’t have avoided the wreck, the court noted there was no way he could have known, as he was asleep until just before impact.
So testimony for the two eyewitnesses for plaintiff were inaccurate, and the conclusion by the highway patrol supported defendant’s account. Photos of the crash scene supported the conclusion the pickup had struck from the rear, which meant the semi-truck had the right-of-way. Thus, the state high court upheld the summary judgment for defendant.
Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.
Moreno v. TLSL, Inc., March 17, 2016, Mississippi Supreme Court
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Pornomo v. U.S. – Court Puts Brakes on Bus Accident Case, March 18, 2016, Fort Myers Trucking Accident Lawyer Blog