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Is an “Eyewitness” Account of a Truck Accident Always Reliable?

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At The Doan Law Firm, our commercial truck accident injury lawyer is frequently asked questions along the line of “Can I still file a lawsuit even if the police say I was the cause of an accident?” or “What can I do if the other driver has an eyewitness who says that I was in the wrong?” On this page, we will explain that an “eyewitness” account of a commercial truck accident is often at odds with other evidence in a case and how an eyewitness can give an honest, but inaccurate, recounting of events.

The science of being wrong

It is well-known to both criminal and civil lawyers that “solid, reliable, eyewitness testimony” is actually quite rare and that, more often than not, such evidence can be successfully challenged in court. While this observation is certainly not new, it is only relatively recently that science has been able to demonstrate why this is the case.

The best-known scientific experiments into how recalled information can be influenced by factors such as how a question is worded or if conversations with other witnesses could influence how an eyewitness recalls a specific incident were conducted in the mid-1970s by psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer.

In their now-classic study Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory” (Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 13: 585 - 589 (1974)), a group of volunteers were shown movies of staged automobile accidents and were later asked to recall what they had observed.

Their study demonstrated several surprising results, such as:

  • When the volunteers were told to estimate the speed of a vehicle, their responses strongly indicated that the way the question was worded had an effect on their answers.

Volunteers who were asked “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” consistently gave higher estimated speeds than those who were asked “How fast were the cars going when they bumped or contacted each other?” The investigators concluded that “stronger” verbs such as “crashed” or “slammed” led to higher estimated speeds than did “milder” verbs such as “contacted” or “hit.”

  • The same volunteers were also asked to describe the amount and distribution of broken glass after the vehicles “crashed” or “contacted.” Once again, those whose questions included the “stronger” verbs reported more broken glass over a wider area than did those who were asked using “milder” verbs. There was, however, one surprising observation.

None of the films shown to the volunteers contained any hint of broken glass! Obviously, the questions’ wording “planted” the false memory of broken glass in the volunteers’ minds!

In the above examples, it should be noted that the longer the interval (immediately after, a few hours, or several days) from the time of being shown the accident films to when they were questioned demonstrated that the longest intervals produced the greatest conflicts between what had actually been seen and what the volunteers thought they had seen.

In “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts” (Scientific American Mind, January 2010), Hal Arkowitz, and Scott Lilienfeld begin by citing Loftus and Palmer but also report that there are many cases where “eyewitnesses” have been involved in tragic miscarriages of justice by citing the work of the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project is a non-profit agency that uses modern DNA technology to establish the guilt or innocence of convicted criminals. Since DNA evidence was first allowed as evidence in 1989, the Innocence Project reports that there have been 362 cases where a conviction was overturned based on DNA testing that proved the convicted party could not have been responsible for the crime they were alleged to have committed. Of those who were later exonerated, 70% had been the victims of misidentification by an “eyewitness.” In our opinion, there is no reason to believe that an “eyewitness” is more reliable in their account of a traffic accident!

How The Doan Law Firm can help with your truck accident claim

In conclusion, we generally will tell our clients that eyewitness reports will very rarely “tell the whole story” regarding a commercial truck accident. At the same time, however, we also stress that truck accident injury cases can be very complex from a legal point of view and that no two cases can be considered to be the same.

If you were injured in a Houston-area commercial trucking accident, we invite you to contact the commercial trucking accident injury lawyer at The Doan Law Firm to arrange a free, no obligation, review of your case and a discussion of the legal options that may be available to you. Should we recommend that you file a lawsuit to recover any damages or other losses you may have suffered, our firm is willing to assume full responsibility for preparing your case for trial in exchange for a percentage of the final settlement that we will win for you.

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Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer

  1. After an accident, the responsible party's insurance company may try to reduce the claim amount. Commonly, insurance adjusters are trained to get information from the injured to assist in reducing the claim. Though some insurers are less guilty of this practice than others, it is important to realize that insurance companies are profit-oriented corporations and reducing claims results in increased profits for shareholders. This can create a situation for the injured in which they are offered a settlement that does not truly reflect the damages suffered. If you accept this settlement, you lose the ability to get more money should your injuries require further medical treatments. It is critical that victims get legal assistance in any personal injury case, and The Doan Law Firm is prepared to fight relentlessly for your rights.
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