If you're making a personal injury claim, a witness to the underlying accident can be immensely valuable. Witnesses can bolster your side of the story, and may even provide new information you can use to prove who was at fault. Even a witness who did not actually see the accident may have seen you in the immediate aftermath, and can confirm that you appeared to be legitimately hurt.
But time is of the essence. If witnesses are not contacted and their information collected fairly soon after the accident, what they have to say may be lost. Memories fade quickly, and recollections may become so fuzzy that they are no longer useful. Also, a witness might no longer be around if you wait too long. Here are some tips on using witnesses to strengthen your personal injury case.
A stranger who saw your accident can be very 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 location in a slip and fall case—in addition to verifying your version of how the accident happened.
Look for such witnesses by returning to the scene and talking with people who live or work within sight of the accident spot. In car accident cases, another place to look for witnesses is in the police report, which 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 the effects of the accident (like the apparent nature and extent of your injuries or your "pain and suffering") 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 write 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 it could jeopardize your personal injury settlement. The decision to talk to the insurance company should be left up to each witness, so that they can remain as independent—and therefore as credible—as possible.
This article is excerpted from How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Attorney Joseph Matthews (Nolo).