Television news has been filled with wild accounts of testimony being given by people who claim to have "witnessed" certain events, from fatal police shootings and choke holds, to decades-old sexual assaults committed by celebrities. Many such witnesses have already had their credibility carefully examined, and many more will be scrutinized in the months to come. Obviously, witness credibility can play a pivotal role in the outcome of legal claims, and not just in criminal cases. Civil wrongful death and personal injury cases may also hinge on the truthfulness of witnesses, including the parties themselves and the non-party witnesses that might include passengers and bystanders who saw or heard something, mechanics who worked on a vehicles, or medical providers who treated a party for poor vision, seizures or another condition that could have affected that party's ability to see, hear or otherwise drive safely.
In this article, "car accidents" actually refers to collisions caused by negligence that results in personal injury or death. Although these collisions usually involve two motor vehicles colliding with each other, they might involve one motor vehicle and one bicyclist, or perhaps a motor vehicle and a pedestrian. Although the parties themselves are usually witnesses at trial, here when we discuss witnesses we are referring to non-party witnesses who claim to have seen or heard something immediately prior to, during, or after the collision. These witnesses are often able to give testimony that can tip the scales one way or the other when the parties are mired in a "swearing contest" consisting of diametrically opposed testimony.
You've just been seriously injured in a collision that was NOT your fault. Should you care about witnesses? Absolutely.
Once you've made certain you are in a safe place and that police/ambulance are on their way, obtain the identities and contact information of as many witnesses as possible, and if possible ask them to tell you (preferably in the presence of a friend of yours) what they saw or heard. If they need to rush off, get them to at least provide their name/number. Not only will the police and your auto insurance claims agent want to speak with them; your own attorney will need to speak with them to confirm and document their potential testimony, perhaps with a sworn affidavit or deposition. These "eye" and "ear" witnesses can prove crucial to your case later – especially if they can help prove the collision was not your fault.
Just how "credible" are these witnesses who support your claim? Will the adverse party's claims adjuster believe them? More importantly, will a jury?
When it comes to witnesses, a perfect witness is hard to find. Recent polls suggest that Americans consider registered nurses the most trustworthy, so your ideal witness might be an RN with perfect vision and hearing who: was sitting nearby with no distractions and an unobstructed view of the area; was focusing on what you and the other party were doing in the seconds before, during and after the collision; and who immediately made quick, detailed and accurate notes of all she saw and heard, before rushing to your aid. Unfortunately, she did not also videotape the incident. That would be asking too much; but perhaps she overheard the other party say he was "sorry, the whole thing is my fault."
Credible testimony is not the same as reliable evidence:
There is a fundamental distinction between evidence that is not reliable and a witness who is not credible. A witness might be credible, but still offer only unreliable evidence; and a witness with little credibility may still be able to present reliable evidence. But your case will go much smoother if your credible registered nurse testifies that from her unobstructed viewpoint she was able to see with her perfect vision the adverse party speed into the intersection against a red light and strike you on your bicycle as you were crossed the intersection with the green light in your favor; and that not only did she never see or hear the motorist brake to avoid hitting you, she actually heard his car accelerate before entering the intersection (i.e., to try and avoid running the red.)
- Has your witness ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor that involves fraud or dishonesty? If so, this will probably affect their credibility.
- Does your witness have any vision or hearing impairments? If so, this may affect the reliability/accuracy of whatever she claims to have seen or heard.
- Did your witness actually see or hear what she claims to have seen and heard? Or is her testimony based upon what she read or heard from someone else? If the latter, then this witness and her testimony will likely be rejected completely as unreliable and inadmissible hearsay.
- Does your witness have any bias in your favor? Is so, your witness will be carefully cross-examined by your adversary about her "understandable" lack of objectivity. A jury might find any supporting testimony from one of your family members to be influenced by their close relationship with you. Same for testimony coming from one of your co-workers or close friends.
- But what if your adversary calls a witness whom you believe is prejudiced against you – for whatever reason? Perhaps the witness dislikes anyone who files a personal injury claim, believing they increase insurance premiums; or he hates all cyclists believing they "waste space" and cause traffic obstructions. Whatever the case, if your attorney can demonstrate these prejudices, the jury will be inclined to disbelieve the witness and disregard his adverse testimony.
- What if a witness gives testimony in court that is 180° different from a statement he previously made to you or your attorney, or possibly to a TV station or newspaper? When conflicting stories are brought to the attention of a jury, that witness quickly loses all credibility.
This article barely scratches the surface of the complexities of proper witness selection and preparation. The real point here is this: if you have been seriously injured – or if a family member or friend has been killed – in a motor vehicle incident, you risk doing permanent damage to your claim by not immediately hiring an experienced injury attorney to handle the complexities inherent in all such claims, not the least of which are dealing with witness credibility and evidence reliability issues.