Illinois Supreme Court Clarifies Law Governing Admissibility of Post-Accident Vehicular Photographs
By Shantel Perez
In a vehicle negligence case, the admissibility of post-accident vehicular photographs has been a point of contention amongst Illinois Appellate Courts with differing opinions on whether photographs of vehicle damage are admissible absent expert testimony. Illinois courts have consistently suppressed photographs in a typical automobile accident unless an expert witness explained to the jury the photograph’s relationship to the claimed injury. The inadmissibility argument is typically made when photographs show minor impact damage to the vehicles. However, if photographs show substantial damage, plaintiffs often attempt to introduce photographs to argue that significant injuries were likely sustained in the accident.
For years, the cases of DiCosola v. Bowman, 342 Ill. App. 3d 530 (2003) and Baraniak v. Kurby, 371 Ill. App. 3d 310 (2007) were followed which associated the needless expansion of an expert rule into the area of photographic vehicular evidence. Courts outside Illinois have addressed the issue in holding that vehicular photographs are generally admissible in a car accident case regardless of expert interpretation.
Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court in the case of Peach v. McGovern reaffirmed the traditional relevancy analysis in regard to admitting post-accident vehicular photographs. No. 123156, 2019 IL 123156 (Jan. 25, 2019). In Peach, plaintiff brought a claim for personal injuries alleging that defendant was negligent when she rear-ended his vehicle causing his neck injury. Defendant testified that she “spaced out” and “let her foot off the brake just a little bit and tapped into Plaintiff’s truck.” Plaintiff testified that his back bumper was dented, and it looked like defendant’s front end was cracked a little bit. Defendant testified that the license plate on her car was dented. Both plaintiff and defendant testified that the photographs taken of their respective vehicles subsequent to the accident were accurate representations of the condition of their vehicles. The photographs reflected minor damage to both vehicles and all photographs were admitted into evidence over plaintiff’s objections. The court found defendant negligent as a matter of law but left the issue of causation and damages for the jury. The jury entered a verdict in favor of the defendant and awarded plaintiff zero damages. Plaintiffs appealed the trial court decision and the appellate court reversed and remanded for new trial on damages. The appellate court held that the circuit court erred in allowing admission of post-accident photographs of the vehicles absent expert testimony and holding the jury verdict was not supported by the evidence.
Upon review, the Illinois Supreme Court found the appellate court’s reliance on the holding of Voykin which was cited in both the Baraniak v. Kurby and DiCosola v. Bowman cases was misplaced as the Voykin decision was predicated on the admissibility of evidence of a plaintiff’s prior injury. Both Baraniak and DiCosola did not involve prior injuries and the court in both cases improperly applied Voykin’s reasoning to the relationship between vehicular damage and the nature and extent of a plaintiff’s personal injuries. The Illinois Supreme Court held both cases extended Voykin “beyond its reasonable limits” and “to the extent that those appellate cases are inconsistent with the analysis set forth below, they are overruled.”
In light of their decision, Illinois Supreme Court found it necessary to clarify the law governing the admissibility of post-accident vehicular photographs. The necessity being to safeguard the law and not create a rigid rule that photographs of the vehicles involved in a collision are always admissible or that expert testimony is always necessary for such photographs to be admitted. The court highlighted four appellate court decisions which correctly illustrate the application of the rules for the admission of post accident vehicular photographs without expert testimony as follows: Ford v. Grizzle, 398 Ill.App.3d 639 (2010), Fronabarger v. Burns, 385 Ill. App. 3d 560 (2008); Jackson v. Seib, 372 Ill. App. 3d 1061 (2007), and Ferro v. Griffiths, 361 Ill. App. 3d 738 (2005). The decision in each of the cases observed the essential question “in deciding the admissibility of vehicular photographs is ‘whether the jury can properly relate the vehicular damage depicted in the photos to the injury with the aid of an expert,’ which is an evidentiary question that must be resolved by the trial judge.”
The Supreme Court highlights that an item of evidence being but a single link in a chain of proof does not have to prove conclusively the proposition for which it is offered. It is enough if the items could reasonably show the fact is slightly more probable than it would appear without the evidence. If a jury can consider relevant testimony about a vehicle’s speed and impact forces, a jury should also be permitted to consider photographs that depict the damage, or lack thereof, done to the vehicles. In Peach, the post-vehicular photographs were introduced to determine whether the plaintiff was telling the truth about his injuries when there was minor damage to the parties’ vehicles. Plaintiff testified defendant plowed into his vehicle and further stated the defendant impacted him at a rate of speed of about 25 to 30 miles per hour. Given the facts, the trial court could properly have found the pictures, when considered into evidence, were relevant to prove the matters at issue were more or less probable.
While Plaintiffs may view these cases as harmful to their claims, the Illinois Supreme Court attempts to safeguard the rules of evidence and reaffirm a traditional relevancy analysis on the issue of admitting post-accident vehicular photographs. Each accident case is different, and it is imperative that parties be allowed to argue for the admittance of post-accident vehicular photographs if and when it is relevant to the issues in question rather than mandating the use of an expert for interpretation purposes.