Accidents and Eyewitnesses
Eyewitness accounts of an accident are known to be inaccurate and, in some
cases, actually contradict the statements of other eyewitnesses.
A frequent question asked by an accident victim to a personal injury accident
lawyer is “What do I do if the eyewitnesses to my accident claim
that I was at fault?” In this post we will look at how an eyewitness
can give an incomplete, or even an inaccurate, account of what actually
occurred in an accident and how an accident attorney can challenge the
accuracy of a witness’s statements.
The classic example of the unreliability of eyewitnesses, one that is presented
in every law school and college-level criminology course, goes something
A professor is discussing some boring topic when a man suddenly bursts
into the lecture hall and loudly accuses the professor of having an affair
with the intruder’s wife. To emphasize his point the intruder pulls
out a pistol and fires several shots at both the professor and students
before fleeing the room. This, of course, was a staged event and the intruder
was a graduate student who was recruited for the occasion. After reassuring
the class that what they have just witnessed was planned well in advance
the professor then asks each student to answer a few questions, such as:
- Was the intruder under the age of thirty or was he older?
- What color shirt, jacket, slacks, etc was he wearing?
- Was it a revolver or an automatic pistol?
- In what hand did the intruder hold the pistol?
Not surprisingly, the is very little agreement among these “eyewitnesses”
to the “crime.” In fact, there is so much disagreement that
it is almost impossible to get a consistent answer to any question!
The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate to the students that eyewitnesses
are frequently wrong in their recollection of events. In most cases, this
demonstration is enough to cause a student to doubt every eyewitness statement
that they encounter for the remainder of their careers.
Factors that can influence the reliability of eyewitnesses
Many people are under the incorrect impression that an eyewitness to an
accident or a crime can provide a perfectly accurate account of the event.
Sadly, there are many cases reported in the news media involving someone
who has spent years in prison and that was later found to be innocent
because an eyewitness made a mistaken identification. In actuality, eyewitnesses
have been shown to make an incorrect identification of a suspect about
as often as they make a correct one!
Years of psychological research, both in the laboratory and in the “real
world,” have demonstrated that eyewitness testimony is not always
reliable when it comes to accident investigation and reconstruction. The
fact that eyewitness testimony is not reliable is well known to personal
injury accident lawyers. Factors that can contribute to the unreliability
of eyewitness accounts of accidents include:
- Wording of questions
- Repetitive questioning
As discussed in the following sections, each of these factors can be be
exploited by a skilled accident investigator or insurance adjuster in
order to present a potential witness in either a favorable or unfavorable light.
It has been demonstrated time and time again that children and older adults
tend to give less accurate eyewitness accounts of events such as crimes
and accidents. It is also known that these age groups tend to be more
susceptible to the other factors cited in the list presented above and
discussed in the following sections.
When someone witnessed an accident but, at the same time, had an incomplete
view of the entire accident scene it is common for other witnesses to
“suggest” to each other “what must have happened.”
Over time, these suggestions become “facts” in any later accounts
of the accident.
It is common for accident investigators to compose their questions in such
a way as to “lead” a witness into making a certain response.
When combined with suggestibility, mentioned above, a witness’s
statements could easily be “turned” in any direction that
an investigator could use to the benefit of his or her employer (such
as an insurance company).
Asking the same question over and over, or the same question but phrased
slightly differently, is a common way to exploit the problem of suggestibility.
If done by a skilled interrogator, repetitive questioning can present
a witness with the possibility that they have contradicted themselves
and that the only possible explanation for the contradiction is the “explanation”
offered by their interrogator.
Keeping an eye on eyewitness testimony
Returning to the question posed earlier, every accident attorney knows
that eyewitnesses are wrong so many times that any account they might
give as to what they “observed” is not to be taken as the
only explanation of what actually happened in an accident.
“Fault” in any accident is a matter that is determined by a
jury that is presented will all the evidence in a given case, not just
the observation of a single witness. If you are being told that you are
at fault in an accident because of an “eyewitness” statement,
you should consult with an accident attorney to insure that all the facts
in a given case are taken into consideration before “fault”
is assigned to you.