If you get into a car accident, you will certainly want to get the names, addresses, and phone numbers of any witnesses to the accident. In a close case, you might need witnesses to prove that the accident happened the way you say it did.
But how can you be sure that the witnesses are credible? What if the witnesses’ recollections hurt your case? How can you attack their credibility? Before we address those questions, let’s review why witnesses are important.
In any type of personal injury accident, the insurance adjuster or the jury is likely to think that the parties (i.e., the plaintiff and the defendant) are biased witnesses because they have a stake in the result. After all, the plaintiff is suing the defendant for money, and the defendant doesn’t want to have to pay money to the plaintiff.
But neutral witnesses hopefully have no stake in the result. To the jury, the most important witnesses can be these neutral witnesses, people who just happened to be in the vicinity of the accident scene. Neutral witnesses theoretically have no axe to grind or stake in the outcome. Accordingly, juries tend to believe the testimony of witnesses who appear to be neutral, as long as they are credible.
Credibility is believability or trustworthiness. If a witness’s testimony and demeanor convinces you that he/she can be trusted, then that witness is credible. A witness’s credibility is often as important as his/her actual testimony. If a witness is simply not believable, then it doesn’t really matter what the content of his/her testimony is. Further, a witness who is not credible will damage your case. You don’t want to be associated with an unbelievable witness. The jury will find you guilty by association, and may not believe your testimony either.
In general, the following are some of the most important factors with respect to witness credibility:
These are all common sense concepts. If the witness was pretty far away from the accident scene, common sense tells you that that witness could not have gotten a good look at the accident. If a witness said, “I don’t know,” 15 times during cross examination, then maybe he/she isn’t being open and honest with the jury. If a witness is friendly to one side’s lawyer and hostile to the other side’s lawyer, that witness probably has some bias that good cross examination will expose.
Good cross examination is the way to attack a witness’s credibility and expose a witness’s biases. If an expensive expert witness is on the stand, a good lawyer will hammer away at the expert’s fee. If an expert witness customarily only testifies for plaintiffs (or for defendants) in personal injury cases, the lawyer will bring that out. If a lay witness to a car accident turns out to be a friend of one of the parties, a good cross examiner will really pounce on that.
And of course one of the most important techniques for attacking credibility is confronting a witness with a prior inconsistent statement. If a witness testifies at trial that the light was green when the defendant went through it, but at a deposition they testified that the light was red when the defendant went through it, that witness’s credibility is destroyed. Such a witness has no credibility. The cross examiner might well ask that witness, “Are you lying now, or were you lying then when you gave that statement?”
The reverse is true when trying to enhance a witness’s credibility. You do not want the jury to think that your witnesses are cooperating too closely with you. You don’t want your witnesses to seem too friendly with you. You certainly don’t want a witness, other than an expert witness, who thinks that he/she will be getting some money from you for testifying. You don’t want a witness to a car accident who was actually around the corner at the exact moment of the accident. And, most importantly, you don’t want your witnesses to have any inconsistencies in their testimony.
If your car accident case is going to trial, you want to make sure to discuss the pros and cons of all of the witnesses with your lawyer. You want to make sure that you know who is credible and who is not.