This week’s question comes from Johanna in the Mission, who writes:
Q: “I saw a lady in a crosswalk get hit by a car recently. There were other people there who helped her get up and out of the street. She seemed hurt, but it did not seem life-threatening, so I left. Now, I feel bad that I did not give the lady my name and number to be a witness.”
A: Johanna, this unfortunately happens all too often. I cannot tell you how many times injured people have come into my office and told me that there were many witnesses to a collision, but that they did not get any names or phone numbers. There are many reasons this happens. Faced with the shock of a sudden, unexpected event, most injured people do not think about collecting witness information. The “fight or flight” adrenaline rush also kicks in to the point that people often do not even realize the extent of their injuries, and they optimistically assume they will be better tomorrow. Well-intentioned witnesses at an accident scene even often walk away, assuming that some other witness will leave his or her contact information.
It may seem unfair, but a person who makes an injury claim has the “burden” to prove that the other person was negligent or careless and that his or her negligence caused the accident and resulting damages to the injured person. The person at fault does not have to prove anything, and his or her insurer only has to “sow doubt” about an injured person’s claims.
Insurance companies are profit-driven, and they love “he-said, she-said” situations. Their decisions are not based on sympathy, but on what they think the injured person can prove to a jury.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to collect the names and phone numbers of witnesses at a collision scene, even if you are not planning at that time to make an injury claim. Collecting the information and deciding later not to make a claim is far better than not collecting it and realizing later that you needed it. Do not just rely on the police. If witnesses leave without speaking to the police, their information is probably lost forever. Police officers can only testify about what they actually observe. In a “he-said, she-said” situation, all police officers can do is write down what they are told.
Accidents can have lasting, detrimental effects on people, even accidents that do not immediately seem catastrophic. If you are injured and a stranger is helping you, ask for that person’s name and phone number. If there are multiple people at the scene, look them in the eye and ask them for their names and numbers. Witnesses do not have to step forward, so be polite. You are asking them for the favor of possibly having to take time from their busy schedules.
If you witness a collision, please offer your name and number to the people who were involved. Take a few minutes to stick around and to talk to the police about what you saw or heard. If you come upon a collision scene after a crash, please ask people who are standing around if they witnessed anything and ask for their names and numbers, so you can give them to the people involved in the collision or to the investigating police officers.
In most instances, being a witness will not take up much of your time. An investigator or attorney may call a witness, ask what he or she saw and request a recorded statement over the telephone or in person. If someone was seriously injured, a witness may be asked to give deposition testimony or to testify at a trial.
It may seem like a hassle, but it is often only a minor inconvenience that can be of great assistance to everyone who is later trying to figure out what happened in the collision.
Honest witness testimony is so important to our justice system. It can help victims receive what they are due and it can help falsely accused people avoid having to pay for something that was not actually their fault. If you witness an accident, please give the parties your name and number. You would want others to do the same for you.