A witness to an accident can be immensely valuable to you in making your case to an insurance company. Witnesses may be able to describe details that confirm what you believe happened, backing up your story. And they may provide information you were not aware of but that shows how the other person was at fault for the accident.
Even a witness who did not actually see the accident may have seen you soon after you were injured and can confirm that you appeared to be hurt. Or a witness may have heard a statement made by another person involved in the accident indicating that someone other than you was at fault.
However, time is of the essence. If witnesses are not contacted and their information confirmed fairly soon after the accident, what they have to say may be lost. People’s memories fade quickly, and soon their recollections may become so fuzzy that they are no longer useful. Also, a witness might no longer be around if you wait too long.
People whom you don’t know but who saw your accident may be helpful to your claim. They may be able to tell you something useful -- such as the fact that a dangerous condition has caused previous accidents on the same spot in a slip and fall claim -- in addition to verifying your version of what happened.
Look for such witnesses by returning to the scene and talking with people who live or work within sight of the accident spot. With traffic accidents, another place to look for witnesses is in the police report. If the police responded to the scene of your accident, they probably will have made a police report, also called an accident report or collision report. The report may list the names, addresses, and phone numbers of witnesses.
If you find people who witnessed your accident, and what they saw indicates that someone else was at fault, act promptly. Here are some steps to take:
Many witnesses to accidents are people we know. If a friend, relative, or acquaintance witnessed your accident, or your pain and suffering following the accident, your job is essentially the same as with a stranger, only easier. You don’t have to go looking for the witnesses, and you usually don’t have to worry that they will disappear quickly. But go over the facts of the accident with them while their memory is fresh -- and make notes of what they tell you so that, if necessary, you can later type up a statement and have them sign it.
Sometimes an insurance adjuster will independently track down witnesses -- from information in a police accident report or otherwise -- and will get in touch with them. Because it may be important for you to contact the witnesses first, to learn what they saw or heard and to prevent the insurance adjuster from putting false or distorted recollections into their heads, speak with your witnesses as soon as possible and discuss the possibility that an insurance adjuster might call.
Witnesses do not have to discuss the accident with the insurance company if they do not want to. And they certainly have a right to limit the extent of their involvement to the statement that they have already given you. But be careful. Although you can tell witnesses that they have the right not to talk to the insurance company, do not tell them not to talk. That would be interfering with the other side’s right to obtain information and could jeopardize your claim. The decision about whether or not to talk to the insurance company should be left up to each witness so that the witness can remain as independent, and therefore as believable, as possible.
This article is excerpted from How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Attorney Joseph Matthews (Nolo).