One of the most important things we advise anyone to do in the event of a car accident is to get the name and contact information of any witnesses that can be found. Of course, it goes without saying that getting first aid if needed and reporting the accident to the police are essential steps, but identifying witnesses and getting statements about what they saw can be crucial to successfully securing compensation for an injured driver.
Witnesses Help Us Prove What Happened
A lawyer must have evidence to demonstrate that the other party is at fault. Many cases are built on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and in order for a lawyer to understand the strength of a case the lawyer must know what the eyewitnesses remember.
In general, witness statements are best taken as soon as possible. Legal scholars and psychologists have developed a deep body of research that shows human memory can be very flawed. Over time, bias creeps into the stories people tell, and witnesses often take in additional information and incorporate it into their story. People also simply forget what happened. Statements obtained right away are likely to be more accurate than later statements.
Witness statements are most credible when the witness does not have any self interest involved. The testimony of your family and friends who were in the car with you are worth something, but generally not as much as a bystander who has no connection to the parties’ involved in the collision. Locating these witnesses and getting a detailed statement from them is often one of the most important things that an investigating personal injury attorney can do.
Statements Can Promote Settlement
Most cases begin with a discovery phase, where each side explores the evidence the other side has. This gives both sides a good understanding of how the case might play out in court. Lawyers and their clients can estimate their odds of winning and decide whether it would be preferable to settle and avoid the risk.
Additionally, discovery will sometimes simply bring one side to the realization that they were in the wrong. For example, an eyewitness statement that a driver was playing with the radio at the time of the accident might encourage that driver’s insurance company to settle.
Prior Statements Can Have Enormous Value in Court
Perhaps most importantly, a witness statement can be a powerful weapon in court. Here are a few ways they can be deployed under Washington State evidence rules:
- Prior inconsistent statement: This is the big one. If a witness starts testifying against you and it is the first time you have heard the witness’s story, then your lawyer is stuck trying to poke holes in the story on the spot. With a prior statement in hand, that witness must tell the exact same story he or she told before. If they stray from their witness statement, your lawyer can force them to explain why they have changed their story. The prior witness statement may even be entered into evidence.
- Party admission: This is perhaps the most dangerous use of a witness statement. Courts assume that witnesses will not make false statements against their interests. So, if a driver hits your car and then runs up to say “I’m sorry that was my fault,” that statement can usually be entered into evidence.
- Refreshing memory: If you have a great witness that gets on the stand and starts forgetting details, the witness can usually take out their previous statement and use it to help remember.
- Recorded recollection: If you have a witness that totally goes blank, the witness will often be allowed to simply read directly from his or her previous statement.
Do Not Let Your Statements Be Used Against You!
Witness statements can just as easily be used against you. If you are in an accident, you should never allow yourself to be talked into making a statement to the other side or even to your own insurance company without advice from your own lawyer first. Call us for a free case review where we can talk through what happened and what options you may have.