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Accidents and Eyewitnesses

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 like this:

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:

  • Age
  • Suggestibility
  • 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.

  • Age

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.

  • Suggestibility

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.

  • Wording of questions

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).

  • Repetitive questioning

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.

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