Stage 1 of 10: Evidence Preservation after an Accident
Tips on What to Look For and What to Document
This article is Part 1 of The 10 Critical Stages of a Personal Injury Lawsuit.
It all begins here, and the events that occur just before and after the accident will be crucial for establishing legal liability. Assuming you are able, the actions you take immediately after the accident may have a great impact on whether you ultimately receive compensation.
There are several things you can do to help preserve the evidence and strengthen your chances to obtain compensation. Over time, evidence can be destroyed and witness memories fade. If you are physically able, or you have the help of a friend or sympathetic witness, take these important steps, immediately after any accident (even if injuries are not apparent):
- Avoid additional injury. For example, if you are in an auto accident and you are able to move your vehicle to the side of the road, do so. If you think a surgery has been mishandled, seek medical attention from a different doctor or hospital. This is not just practical advice; legally, if you don't try to mitigate, or minimize, your own damages, this may be held against you in your personal injury case.
- Gather contact information from witnesses. Whenever possible, you should politely ask witnesses to an accident to provide their names and phone numbers. Many people don't want to be forced to testify or give statements as witnesses, but those who are sympathetic may be more inclined to provide contact information.
- Tip: If uncooperative witnesses are in vehicles, as in an auto accident situation or a fall in a parking lot, write down their license plate numbers.
- State Facts - Not Opinions! Whether you're giving a statement to a police officer or a store manager, limit your remarks to what actually happened - what hit what, who fell where, etc. Regardless of what you think, never say that the accident might have been your fault. Police officers and others sometimes write these excited statements down as "facts" in an accident report, potentially causing problems for your personal injury case.
- Take photographs. Juries tend to be strongly swayed by photographs; perhaps more than any other kind of evidence. You should photograph both: (1) the situation surrounding the accident, which might help you prove fault; and (2) your injuries and other things that might help you prove how the accident affected you (see three hints, below, for ideas). If you can, take several photographs, both at a distance and close-up, until you feel that your pictures tell the whole story. Begin taking photographs as soon as possible, after an accident. Continue to photograph your injuries and physical progress, as you heal.
- Tip: Show the jury the accident scene, by photographing things like the positions of two cars that have just crashed, skid marks or debris on the road, a photo of an intersection or street, a visibly malfunctioning product that has just injured you, a wet floor or icy sidewalk that has no warning sign. Take photos from a distance and close-ups of anything noteworthy, like a blown tire on a car.
- Tip: Show the jury how the accident has affected you, by photographing your injuries thoroughly, just after the accident and throughout any healing process, medical procedures, surgeries, or treatments of the injury. Photograph cuts, bruises, surgical sites and scars closely and with careful focus. If there is medical equipment - crutches, braces, special beds, etc., take photos of those, as well. Finally, photograph your limitations, in context. If you can't lift your arm higher than your shoulder, for example, you might want to photograph yourself, unable to reach to open your kitchen cabinets or unable to reach to do an act necessary to your employment.
- Tip: Always take multiple shots of multiple views, and try using different angles and lighting settings to capture difficult images, like bruising. Don't adopt a particular facial expression, like angry or smiling, in photos depicting your injuries or limitations, and photograph yourself against a blank wall or table, wearing no jewelry and in very simple clothing, to avoid items that would draw interest away from the main subject.
- Preserve physical evidence. If you've been in an auto accident and your vehicle is "totaled," many insurance companies paying for your property damage will allow you to keep the vehicle for a small price, deducted from the payment you receive. Keep it, if you can. An accident reconstructionist hired by your attorney can determine many details about an accident, just by looking at a vehicle. If a product has injured you, don't throw it away. Your attorney may know a design engineer who can examine it for defects. These pieces of "junk" may wind up being the key evidence in your personal injury case.
- Start an personal injury journal. Beginning as soon as possible after an accident, start a journal and write down everything that you remember. Continue your personal injury journal, as you receive medical treatments and discover limitations and physical symptoms that result from the accident. This information may be useful as evidence, so stick to the facts.
- Get accident reports. If a police officer and police report are involved, as in an auto accident situation, ask the officer how you can get a copy. Ask store management how to obtain a copy of any written report that is being filed, regarding a slip and fall accident. Take reports to your first appointment with a personal injury attorney.
- Tip: Preserve a copy of each report intact, with pages in the original order. Make another copy to look through or mark up. Do not mark on your originals!
- Notify, notify, notify. Notify your insurance company immediately. Depending on your state, you may be required to notify other parties or to file reports with certain agencies.
- Tip: After an auto accident, check your automobile insurance policy papers - there is likely to be a checklist there telling you who to contact after an accident.
- Never sign anything without legal advice. Although not as common as it used to be, there are still insurance adjustors and savvy parties-at-fault who will slide papers under your nose that contain language releasing them from liability. Never, ever - ever - sign anything beyond a claim form, without asking for advice from an attorney. Even language that seems straightforward can have a vastly different meaning, used in a legal context, and it usually costs nothing to meet with a personal injury lawyer.
Here is some additional tips:
All content on Accidents.com is for informational purposes only and is NOT intended as legal or medical advice. Please seek advice from a professional on any related topics.