The first few days immediately following an accident are often the most important for finding and preserving evidence of what happened -- and for documenting your injuries.
Who was at fault for an accident is sometimes shown by a piece of “physical” evidence -- something you can see or touch, as opposed to a description of what happened. Examples include a worn or broken stair that caused a fall, the dent in a car showing where it was hit, or an overhanging branch that blocked visibility on a bike path.
Also, physical evidence can help prove the extent of an injury. For example, damage to the car can demonstrate how hard a collision was, and torn or bloodied clothing can show your physical injuries very dramatically.
Physical evidence that is not preserved or photographed in the first few days following an accident can get lost, modified by time or weather, destroyed, or repaired. So, any physical evidence you have -- your damaged car or bike, your damaged clothing, a defective product -- should be preserved exactly as it was at the time of the accident. You can later show it to an insurance company as proof of what happened.
After any moderate or serious car accident, it's important to get the police involved. The police report will usually be the go-to piece of evidence determining liability for causing the accident - even though it is usually inadmissible in court. See Police Reports as Evidence to learn more about obtaining and using them during settlement negotiations.
If you do not have a piece of physical evidence, or for any reason cannot preserve it, the next best option is to photograph it. Regular photos are better than Polaroids. Not only do they usually show greater detail and more accurate light conditions, but you will be able to give an insurance company prints while holding onto the negatives or original digital images.These days, most cell phones have digital cameras of sufficient quality to use to gather evidence - and they're almost always at the ready.
Take a number of photos from different angles so that you can later pick out the ones that show most clearly whatever it is you want to highlight to the insurance company. You may also want to take a video.
Take the photos as soon as possible so that they will accurately represent the condition of the evidence immediately after the accident. To establish the date the photos were taken, ask a friend both to watch you take the pictures and to write a short note confirming the date the photos were taken. Process the photos immediately and make sure the date is indicated on the back of the prints, on your receipt, or on the digital file.
You have the right to take pictures in public places, so if your accident happened in a place that is open to the public, you can go back and take photos. If the area has been closed, try to get permission from whoever is in charge -- for example, if you were injured in a slip and fall at a shopping mall, ask the mall manager or security people if you can go past the barriers. If the manager or security people deny your request, make a note of that, and be sure to note the date, the name of the person who denied your request, and the reasons given for not allowing you to take photographs. Then write to the insurance adjuster for the mall, explain what happened, and demand permission to get in and take the pictures you need. Tell the adjuster that it is “bad faith” to refuse permission to examine and photograph the scene of the accident.
If an accident occurred somewhere other than in your home, return to the scene as soon as possible to locate any evidence and photograph any conditions you believe may have caused or contributed to the accident. You may be amazed to find something that you were not aware of when the accident occurred but that may help explain what happened: a worn or torn spot on which you fell, a traffic light that isn’t working. While looking around, you may also find witnesses who saw what happened or who know of other accidents that happened in the same spot.
Take photographs of the accident scene from a number of different angles -- particularly your view of things right before the accident -- to keep a good picture of the scene in your mind. Photograph the scene at the same time of day as your accident occurred. For vehicle accidents, photograph the scene on the same day of the week to show the appropriate amount of traffic.
Photographs of your injuries also help in establishing the extent of your damages. Detailed photos of significant bruising, burns, lacerations help to tell the story of your pain.
Without question though, medical records are the key to establishing the extent of your injuries - and subsequently, the amount of compensation you should demand. Even the type of medical treatment you get is important - and you can bet the defendant in your case is going to request your medical records. For this reason, it's critical to see a doctor and follow any treatment recommendations - especially referrals to other specialists.
For some good advice on documenting your injuries for an injury claim, see these suggestions.
Parts of this article were excerpted from the book, How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Attorney Joseph Matthews (Nolo).