The Scene of the Accident
At the Scene
The client’s actions at the scene of any accident are of utmost importance in determining the course of the personal injury litigation. Whether your client was injured in a car collision, in a slip-and-fall accident, as the result of equipment failure, by a doctor’s negligence, or in any other way, the client must, during the very earliest stages, take great care with everything said and done. Memory of key events will never be as fresh as they are on the day of the injury, nor will the most crucial pieces of evidence be as available. Therefore, the client must focus entirely on what has happened. At the scene of the injury, the client should gather all the necessary information so that it can be preserved for use throughout the litigation. If you publish an e-newsletter or use direct mailings, you can let prospective clients know all of this.
After an Accident
The events that occur immediately after an accident can determine whether the injured person receives reasonable and timely compensation. This person should avoid discussing anything that could later be interpreted as an admission of fault. During this stressful time, an insurance company lawyer can twist an apology into an admission. At the same time, the injured person should listen carefully to what others say and write down key admissions as soon as possible. Often, people make statements at accident scenes, during the heat of the moment, that are helpful to your client’s case.
It is always a good idea to call the police to the scene. Failure to do so could lead an insurance company to deny that an accident ever happened. Photographs of the damaged cars are also helpful. In larger cities, police may refuse to appear at the accident scene. For example, as of May 3, 2010, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, police are not required to come to the scene of minor fender-benders with no apparent injuries. Your clients will have to collect all of the pertinent information themselves.
Your client should not leave the scene until she is certain she and/or the police have all of the other driver’s identifying information. This includes their license plate number, name, address, driver’s license number, insurance company, and insurance policy number. It is important to know if the driver was on “company business”; if so, the employer may be liable for the damages. The client should ask the police officer for help in obtaining the police report. Clients must be aware of any conditions relating to the cause of the accident (for example, skid marks, accident debris, and so on).
It is important to take photos of the vehicles, any skid marks, the area of the crash, and anything else of relevance. I tell my clients to keep a disposable camera in the car, out of direct sunlight or heat. A cell phone that takes photos is also very useful at moments like these. Be sure to ask any new client if they have taken any photos or know of any.
It is crucial to get the name, address, and phone number of any eyewitnesses to the accident. Even though people can be reluctant to get involved, many will respond if you appeal to their sense of justice. Most people can put themselves in the shoes of an injured person who needs the help of a witness. Without the assistance of a witness, it may be impossible to obtain fair compensation for your client’s injuries.
You may believe that fault for the accident is completely obvious. Unfortunately, insurance companies deny claims for practically any reason at all. If the other motorist does not admit fault to their insurer, the claim could be tied up in litigation for many years. A solid eyewitness statement is an effective way to influence an insurance company to honor the claim. Insurance companies are particularly persuaded by statements made by independent witnesses (someone your client never met before the accident).
Auto damage substantiates that a collision occurred. In slip-and-fall cases, no such proof exists. Therefore, witnesses are perhaps even more important in fall-down cases. Insurance companies are often suspicious of this kind of case. Thus, a prompt investigation that includes eyewitness statements and photographs of the accident scene will help convince the insurance company that it should pay fair and prompt compensation.
After the accident, you and your client should record important car and fall-down accident information. See Appendices 2 and 4 of my book, Winning Personal Injury Cases, for worksheets that will help.