A first-party witness is a person directly involved in an accident who has a stake in the outcome of the case. For example, when two cars collide in a side-impact car accident, both drivers are first-party witnesses to the crash.
A third-party witness is a person who saw the accident but has no stake in the outcome of the case. Insurance adjusters, judges, and jurors often find third-party witnesses to be the most credible because they are neutral and may have seen or heard things from a different perspective than the people involved in the crash.
When you file a car insurance claim, one of the first questions an insurance adjuster will typically ask you is, "Did anyone other than the driver witness the accident?"
Adjusters know that each person involved in an accident has a unique and often self-serving version of events. An adjuster—or a judge or jury if the case ends up in court—has to decide whose version of events is most believable.
Third-party witnesses can offer an unbiased perspective and help establish who really was at fault for the accident. They may also fill in information gaps because they saw the accident from a different angle than the people involved whose memory of the accident may be clouded by accident-related trauma.
Time is of the essence when it comes to finding witnesses. Witnesses might not hang around for very long after an accident, so you should get names and contact information for each person who may have seen or heard the crash.
You might not be able to get witness information yourself if you were injured in the accident. If that's the case, call 911. You will get medical help and a police officer will respond to the scene to gather information about the accident, including witness statements for a police report that you can ask for later.
The most common types of witnesses in a car accident are first-party witnesses, third-party witnesses, and expert witnesses.
First-party witnesses are people involved in the accident who have a stake in the outcome of the case. The classic example of a first-party witness is one of the drivers involved in a collision. The driver experienced the collision and has a financial interest in the outcome of a related insurance claim or lawsuit.
Similarly, passengers involved in an accident are important witnesses, but they typically aren't neutral witnesses. They are often friends or relatives of the drivers involved and they can make their own passenger injury claim after an accident too.
Third-party witnesses are valuable to adjusters and fact finders because they have no personal connection to the people involved in the accident and no financial interest in the case. Examples of potential third-party witnesses include:
A first or third-party witness is a lay witness. Lay witnesses can only testify about what they saw or heard firsthand and may not offer their opinions about who's to blame for the accident or anything else.
An expert witness, on the other hand, is someone who has special training and experience and is hired to offer an opinion about something important in the case. For example, a driver may hire an accident reconstruction expert to review the evidence and write a report about how the accident happened, and prove fault for the accident.
If you're planning to hire an expert witness in your car accident case, talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can tell you whether it's worth investing in an expert and help you find a qualified expert.
Just because a witness saw or experienced an accident, doesn't mean the witness is credible. Witnesses are humans, not machines. They may not have perfect recall of an accident for many reasons, and people sometimes honestly remember the same event differently.
Events happen very quickly during a car accident. Cars may be speeding or moving unpredictably on the road. A driver may have to respond to a situation within seconds. People on the sidewalk may only catch a glimpse of a crash out of the corner of an eye.
Car accidents are scary and tremendously stressful. People involved and in close proximity to the crash may be so preoccupied with their own safety that they miss important details about how the accident happened.
For these reasons and more, witnesses may only be able to piece together what happened and their observations might not be reliable.
When insurance adjusters, judges, or jurors assess witness credibility they focus on many factors. Some factors have to do with the witness's ability to perceive the events. Other factors focus on the witness's character and potential bias.
When you are evaluating a witness's credibility—including your own—here are some of the questions you and your lawyer should ask:
How well your witness was able to see and pay attention to the accident is critical. But your witness's character and potential bias will always be questioned. Here are some of the uncomfortable questions you and your witnesses are likely to face:
Witnesses who give conflicting statements about what happened raise red flags. If a witness tells the police the light was green right after the accident and then testifies that it was red in court, the jury may disregard the witness's testimony altogether.
If you're able to find witnesses at the scene, be sure to exchange names and contact information. If the witness seems friendly, you might want to ask the witness to record a video or voice memo on your cell phone describing the accident in as much detail as possible. Or you could ask the witness to write a statement, but be sure to have the witness sign and date it.
Tread lightly when you're asking for witness statements. If a witness feels pressured or coerced by you into giving a statement it could reflect badly on you and undermine the credibility of the statement.
Be sure to let law enforcement know about any helpful witnesses. Officers will typically try to find and speak to witnesses on their own, but it doesn't hurt to give them a heads-up about a helpful witness. Witness statements taken by the police will be included in the police report. You or, better yet, your lawyer can try to follow up with witnesses later if you need more information.
Anyone who saw a car accident can potentially be a witness in an insurance claim or lawsuit.
It's pretty common for friends and relatives of drivers to be witnesses in car accident cases for obvious reasons. Unless you're a rideshare driver, you probably don't drive around with strangers in your car very often.
Just because a witness has a connection to you doesn't mean the witness is not credible. Yes, an adjuster is going to wonder if, for example, your spouse's statement is entirely truthful or biased toward you. But a friend or relative who was present for the entire accident, attentive, and consistent can be a credible and helpful witness.
Passenger witnesses are complicated. They are often friends or relatives of the drivers involved in the crash and may be biased toward them, but they may also have their own claims against one or both drivers.
An adjuster may consider a passenger to be a credible witness if the passenger has a good character and gives a statement that is consistent with other evidence. Or an adjuster may disregard the passenger's testimony as self-serving or biased toward their driver.
It's easy to see how different factors affect a witness's credibility. So, when presenting an accident claim to an insurance company it's important to make sure you're providing the most reliable and credible witnesses available. A witness who lacks credibility for whatever reasons may end up harming your claim. Learn more about what to do when the claims adjuster asks about your witnesses.
Sometimes there are no third-party witnesses to an accident and it's your word against the other driver's. Or maybe your vehicle was damaged due to poor road conditions and you're the only witness to the accident.
If that's the case, take a moment to write down everything you can remember about the accident. Take photos at the accident scene, including the surrounding area, road signs, skid marks, vehicle damage, and injuries.
Look around for cameras that might have recorded the accident. For example, a surveillance camera at a nearby business, a doorbell camera on a residential street, or a traffic or red-light camera in the area may have captured some or all of the crash. A quality video from the right angle might be more helpful than a witness. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a video worth?
Experiencing or witnessing a car accident is always stressful and may be traumatic depending on the circumstances. You're likely to have a lot of questions about your legal rights and responsibilities. A lawyer can help.
If you're directly involved in an accident, working with a lawyer is especially important. A lawyer can help you get the best possible outcome in your case whether you're pursuing a claim or defending yourself against one.
If you're a witness, you may not need a lawyer, but a lawyer can answer your questions. Having your credibility questioned can be uncomfortable. A lawyer can advise you about whether you have to give a statement and help protect you if you do.
Learn more about when to lawyer up after a car accident. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.