In the early hours of May 3, 2010, Lisa Michelle Hylla’s body was hurled into the southbound lanes of the 405 Freeway in Mission Hills, the result of a three-car collision in the northbound lanes. She died at the scene. While it is known that two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in a patrol unit and an elderly couple in a 1984 Toyota pickup truck were the other parties involved, the media that reported the story offered conflicting accounts of the accident-specifically, whether or not the sheriff’s deputies were on duty when the accident occurred. This is not a new phenomenon for a California injury lawyer.
KTLA.com reported that the deputies were off duty when the accident occurred. According to an article posted at 2:34 PM on the day of the accident, “Lisa Michelle Hylla, 25, got out of her disabled pickup on the northbound side and was struck by one of the vehicles involved in the collision.” The impact flung her into the southbound lanes of the freeway. She was pronounced dead at the scene, and the cause of the crash was under investigation.
The Los Angeles Daily News, or DailyNews.com, wrote that the deputies were on duty. In a 6:46 AM news posting, the Daily News reported that Hylla, 25, “was involved in an injury-collision with a 1984 Toyota pickup truck.” A sheriff’s patrol car then struck the disabled pickup truck, consequently throwing Hylla into the southbound lanes of the freeway. According to CHP Officer Leland Tang of the West Valley Area Office, “[it] was unclear if Hylla got out of her car at some point, or if she was ejected from the vehicle.”
While it is ambiguous as to whether the impact that threw Hylla into the southbound lanes was caused from the sheriff’s patrol car in the previous two articles, the Los Angeles Times’ blog, L.A. Now, wrote that the “Sheriff’s Department vehicle struck a stopped pickup truck, killing the woman inside.” In this rendition of the story, the sheriff’s deputies’ vehicle is attributed with the impact that caused Hylla’s death. The article does not mention if the deputies were on or off duty.
Witness bias may explain conflicting accounts of an accident. A witness with a bias in favor of law enforcement may tell reporters that the deputies were off duty when the accident occurred which may elicit less negative criticism from the public. This witness also attempted to shift some of the blame for the fatality on the victim. In this account, Hylla is struck as a result of her exiting her vehicle.
The witness accounts used in the Daily News and L.A. Now articles suggest an law enforcement on duty involvement. In the Daily News article, the deputies were on duty and somewhat directly blamed for the impact that sent Hylla flying into the southbound lanes. While the L.A. Now article does not mention whether the deputies were on or off duty, it directly attributes the impact that ultimately resulted in Hylla’s death to them.
Witness bias is one of the most common and detrimental problems a lawyer can encounter in an accident case. While in California evidence rules dictate how an injury lawyer can expose bias in the courtroom, an experienced injury lawyer will uncover witness bias before going to trial.
The process of exposing witness bias starts with the interview. Without a recording device, which would likely cause the witness to feel uncomfortable, the injury lawyer will have a conversation with the witness, asking open-ended questions. The lawyer will learn about not only the facts of the case but also the opinions and thought process of the witness. This will allow the lawyer to compare the witness’s account of the accident with any bias the witness may have. For example, the witness may admit to only seeing a small part of the accident while, at the same time, placing the blame on the victim. Probing the witness about his or her past experiences with law enforcement may reveal a bias: the witness’s father was a sheriff’s deputy, or the witness was saved once by a police officer. Once the bias is uncovered, the lawyer will subtly guide the witness to see how this bias is affecting his or her account of the accident. Ideally, the witness will want to give a fair account; however, if the witness is determined to have the case result in a positive outcome for one of the parties involved, the lawyer will have to expose bias during the trial.
While the accident that tragically resulted in Hylla’s death is still under investigation, it is likely that witness bias will be uncovered before or during the trial.
James Ballidis is an experienced California Injury Lawyer and the author of several books on accident liability and claims management. If you would like to request a copy of one of his books or are concerned witness bias may be affecting your accident case, feel free to call 1-866-981-5596.