After a car accident, the success of your car insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit will depend on your ability to prove fault for the car accident and damages.
You, of course, are an important witness to the accident. What you have to say about how the accident happened and how it affected you—physically and financially—is crucial evidence. But you have an interest in the outcome of the insurance claim or lawsuit, so you're likely going to need proof to back up what you say.
In this article, we'll explain:
At every stage of your car accident case—filing a car insurance claim, writing a demand letter, negotiating a settlement, or going to trial—you'll need evidence to prove fault for the accident and damages.
You can simply say, for example, that the other driver ran a red light and hit you, but what happens when the other driver denies it? Your position will be much stronger if you have a third-party witness (like a pedestrian or uninvolved driver) who can confirm your version of events, and stronger still if you have physical evidence, like video from a red light camera.
The lesson here is that when it comes to proving fault for the crash and damages— physical injuries, vehicle damage, lost income due to time away from work, or anything else—you need to come to the negotiating table or courtroom with proof.
A minimum amount of car insurance is required in almost every state. So, after most car accidents, you'll need to deal with an insurance company. Insurance claims are less formal than lawsuits. You'll typically need to explain to an adjuster how the insured person was at fault for the accident and how much the accident cost you.
Most car accident claims settle without anyone having to file a civil lawsuit. But in the rare event that a car accident case ends up in court, the burden of proof is on the person suing (called the "plaintiff") to show that the person getting sued (the "defendant) was at fault for the crash and caused the plaintiff harm.
People making an insurance claim or filing a lawsuit have to support their version of events with evidence. Evidence can come in many forms, including:
When it comes to proving fault for the accident, the most effective evidence is often documented in the police report—photographs, skid marks, debris, and witness statements. When it comes to witnesses, insurance adjusters and other fact finders often find neutral witnesses who have no personal interest in the outcome of a case more credible than people directly involved in the accident who likely have a financial stake in the claim.
As with many things in life, time is of the essence when it comes to gathering car accident evidence. If it's safe and you're physically and emotionally up for it, you can take steps to protect yourself and start preparing for a car insurance claim or car accident lawsuit right after the accident.
Call for help. As soon as you can, call for help. Call 911 if anyone needs medical attention. If everyone is okay, call the state or local police's non-emergency line. You may be legally required to report the accident if it involves a certain amount of property damage, typically around $1,000, but less in some states.
Exchange Information. Get contact and insurance information for all drivers and vehicle owners involved in the accident and give them your information. Also, get witness names and contact information.
Watch what you say. After getting in an accident, you're likely to be stressed and emotional. Don't make any statements that you might regret later. Be kind and help others involved in the accident if you can, but don't admit fault or make any promises. Your words can come back to haunt you later.
Learn more steps to take after a car accident.
Some evidence can only be gathered at the scene of the accident. If you can, start collecting information as soon as possible after the crash.
If a law enforcement officer is at the scene of the accident, don't interfere with the officer's investigation. Eventually, you'll have access to the officer's police report (more on that below). But don't assume an officer will document everything that may be important to your case. Officers are focused on safety, not liability, and have to complete many tasks quickly and efficiently.
A car accident witness is a person who saw or heard the crash. As soon as you can, get names and contact information for all potential witnesses, including:
Witnesses who have no personal connection to anyone involved in the accident and no financial stake in the outcome of a related insurance claim or lawsuit are often the most credible witnesses.
If a law enforcement officer came to the scene of your accident, the officer most likely prepared a police report (sometimes called an "incident report" or "accident report"). This report includes information that you'll need to pursue a claim. For example, police reports often include statements from drivers, passengers, and witnesses about the circumstances of the crash and observations made by the responding officer. The report may also include the officer's opinion about whether any traffic laws were violated and who caused the accident. If an officer concludes that the other driver was at fault, you'll want a copy of that report. Insurance adjusters, judges, and jurors value law enforcement officers' training and experience and may decide in your favor based on the officer's findings alone.
Getting your hands on a copy of a police report can be frustrating and time-consuming. Get the incident number from the officers who responded to the scene, and find out how quickly their department typically processes reports; ask exactly what kind of identifying information you'll need to bring with you and how much a copy of the report will cost you. Most departments charge an administrative fee for the report (typically around $20) or charge you a copying fee per page.
Learn more about car accidents and police reports.
As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. If you can, use a camera or your phone to take date-stamped photographs and videos at the scene. You'll want to document:
Photos are the most powerful way to paint a picture of a car accident. Here are some tips for taking car accident scene photos.
Many drivers with newer cars have experienced the benefits of backup cameras. Now others are discovering the many advantages of having a dashboard camera. Dash cams record everything that is in front of your car, from beautiful sunsets to potentially viral mishaps and, most importantly, car accidents.
Dash cam footage is often the most reliable evidence of how an accident happened and who was at fault. Investing in a dash cam can save you money in the long run if it helps you quickly resolve insurance claims and avoid lawsuits.
When you're shopping for a good dash cam, look for:
Some states have specific laws that place limits on the size of dash cams and where cams can be mounted. Be sure you're in compliance or you risk getting a traffic ticket.
Remember you'll need evidence of fault and damages. "Damages" is a legal term used to describe the value of your injuries and other compensation you might receive for accident-related losses.
Damages typically fall into categories: special and general. Special (also called "economic") damages include things you can easily value in dollars, like medical bills and lost wages. General (also called "noneconomic") damages, like pain and suffering, are more difficult to value. Most adjusters and courts estimate general damages based on your medical expenses, so documenting all of your medical bills is critical to getting fair compensation.
Let's take a closer look at these categories of damages.
If you were injured in the crash, get copies of all of your medical bills and medical records documenting your treatment.
Depending on the severity of your injuries and the details of your treatment, you may need to locate and request records for some or all of the following:
This isn't an exhaustive list. You'll need evidence of your medical bills and records specific to your injuries and treatment.
Learn more about getting your medical records.
If your vehicle was damaged in the accident, start collecting repair estimates. An adjuster may demand an "independent" inspection of the damage to your vehicle, but if you're armed with two or three estimates of your own, you'll be able to make a strong argument for the repairs you need, and the associated costs.
If your car is a total loss, you'll need to figure out the actual cash value of your car just before the accident happened. If you disagree with the insurance company's valuation of your vehicle, you'll need proof (receipts, photos) of the pre-accident condition of your car.
You'll need proof of exactly how much it cost to repair or replace your vehicle. If you have to rent a car while yours is out of commission, keep your receipts, You may be entitled to reimbursement.
In addition to gathering records and bills to document your accident-related losses, you should keep a car accident journal documenting everything you experience as a result of the accident—headaches, time away from work, missed vacations, sleepless nights, and anxiety.
A car accident journal can be helpful when you have to explain your damages to an adjuster or jury. You may think you'll never forget the details of your injuries and how the accident disrupted your life, but memories fade and insurance claims and lawsuits can drag on.
Learn more about how to keep a car accident diary to protect your claim.
You may be able to recover income you lost because of your car accident injuries, but you'll need the right documentation.
Keep track of the days you had to miss work and the wages you lost. Documents like paystubs, direct deposit records, tip records, or your previous year's income as shown on a tax return can provide proof of your rate of income.
If you're self-employed, also keep track of jobs and opportunities you lost because you weren't able to work.
If the accident left you with a permanent or long-lasting disability that affects your ability to work, talk to a lawyer. You may be able to recover damages for "lost earning capacity," but you'll likely need an expert witness. When the stakes are high, having a legal professional on your side can help you get the best possible outcome in your case.
You don't have to hire a lawyer for your car accident claim. If your claim is small and your injuries are minor, you may be able to represent yourself effectively.
But if your claim involves a dispute over liability or serious injuries, a lawyer can help. A lawyer can investigate the accident and find the best evidence to back up your claims. A lawyer can carry the load of gathering medical records and help you present your story in the most persuasive way possible.
A lawyer can also give you a realistic sense of how much your claim is worth, negotiate a settlement, and advocate for you in court if necessary.
Learn more about how an attorney can help with your car accident case. When you're ready, you can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.
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