The first few days after any kind of accident are often the most important when it comes to gathering and preserving evidence of what happened, especially if you end up making a personal injury claim.
Fault for an accident can sometimes be shown (or at least bolstered) 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 slip and fall, the dent in a car showing where it was hit, or an overhanging branch that blocked visibility on a bike path.
Physical evidence can also help prove the nature and extent of your injuries. For example, damage to a car can demonstrate the severity of impact, and torn or bloodied clothing can show 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 torn clothing, a defective product—should be preserved exactly as it was at the time of the accident.
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 with your smartphone or some othre digital camera (standard cameras are fine too)
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 shoot video.
Take the photos as soon as possible so that they will accurately represent the condition of the evidence immediately after the accident. Print out or 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 of the area—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 your request is denied, make a note of that, including 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, 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.
It may 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 come across 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 typical amount of traffic.
Photographs of your injuries also help in establishing the extent of your damages. Detailed photos of significant bruising, burns, and 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 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. Keep in mind that your injuries and your medical bills often form the basis for your "pain and suffering", which is a key indicator of the value of your personal injury case.
Parts of this article were excerpted from the book How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Attorney Joseph Matthews (Nolo).