Witnesses at the Scene

Car accidents happen every day and result from a host of different causes. They occur without warning, leaving behind them congested traffic and property damage, as well as physical and emotional injuries. All too often, the mechanisms of car accidents are disputed, due to the fact that only the two drivers involved are available to offer their personal recollections of how the accident happened.

If you’ve been injured in a car accident by the negligence of another driver, you might find yourself in a tough spot if the other driver accuses you of negligent conduct. In such a situation, the accident mechanics become unclear as the conversation devolves into a “he-said, she-said” free-for-all. When this occurs, your right to recovery is called into question, and you will do well to engage every resource available to you. One of these valuable resources is a written statement from an eyewitness.

Why do I need a witness statement?

North Carolina is one of four states that still recognize the doctrine of “contributory negligence.” This means that if you are partially responsible for causing an accident — if you bear even one percent of the fault — your right to recovery is barred completely.

Contributory negligence is the best friend of insurance adjusters in North Carolina, because any argument they can make for holding you partially responsible for the accident – no matter how small or attenuated – allows them to deny your claim completely. These denials are often predicated upon an allegation by the at-fault driver that the victim shared fault by doing something like speeding, following too closely, or becoming distracted while driving. In order to overcome a potential denial based upon an accusation of contributory negligence, you will need to establish that you shared no fault in causing the accident.  Having one or more written eyewitness statements can go a long way toward clearing your name and maximizing your chances at recovery.

How do I find witnesses?

It’s important to determine who witnessed the accident as soon as possible after it occurs.  This is because these witnesses possess information that could prove crucial in the insurance provider’s disposition of your claim; and most witnesses will only stop for a short time, if at all. Additionally, you should assume that the at-fault driver’s insurance provider will waste no time in reaching out to every witness they can find.  For these reasons, it will be in your best interest to speak with any witnesses at the scene of the accident, if you’re able to do so without causing further injury to yourself.  Make sure to do whatever you can to immediately identify any witnesses, and record their contact information by writing it down or putting it in your cell phone.

Don’t assume that other drivers are the only potential witnesses!  Traditionally, some of the best witnesses can be workers or customers at nearby businesses, homeowners living close to the scene of the accident, or road/utility workers near the scene.  If it takes walking into businesses or knocking on doors, do it.  One good witness can make the difference between recovery and having your claim denied.  If you are badly injured, ask someone at the scene to gather information for you. Once the witness leaves the scene, he or she is often gone forever, so act fast!

Keep a pen and notepad in your car, or a few copies of our free Witness Statement Form, in case an accident occurs and you need to collect statements at the scene.  Ask each witness to write down their recollection of the accident as soon as they are able to.  Don’t try to lead the witness or influence him to “color” his recollection in any given way; just ask for a straightforward recounting of what the witness saw and heard.  Once the statement is written, signed, and dated, it may be prudent to take a picture of the witness holding the statement toward the camera, just for the sake of “having your bases covered.”

As a corollary, there is no such thing as taking too many pictures at the scene of the accident.  Make sure to get pictures of any vehicles involved, in the positions they ended up in immediately after the accident occurred.  If there are businesses within eyeshot of the scene, especially grocery stores, department stores, banks, or gas stations, they may have surveillance video of the accident.  Make sure to contact any such businesses as soon as possible to put them on notice of your possible need for the surveillance video.

If you aren’t able to speak with the witness(es) at the scene of the accident and you didn’t record their phone number or address, you may be able to find their contact information on the crash report. The crash report, NC Form DMV-349, will be generated by the responding police officer and should be made available to you within a few days after the accident occurs. This is generally a two-page form that identifies the parties involved, describes the mechanics of the accident, lists any contributing factors, and provides a wealth of other information. For witness information, you will want to look at page two of the crash report:

Witness names and contact information, if any, will be found in Box 86, at the bottom of page two:

If any witness information is available, you should be able to call or write each witness, asking them if they would be willing to provide you with a written statement of what they observed at the time of the accident. For continuity and consistency, we recommend providing each witness with the same template.  Feel free to use our Wallace Pierce Witness Statement Form if you would like.

What should the witness statement include?

Your witness statements should be concise and straightforward. They should include (i) the full name of the witness, (ii) the date of the accident, (iii) the location of the accident, and (iv) a brief, but thorough, restatement of what the witness observed when the accident occurred.  The statement should be signed and dated by the witness.. If the witness runs out of room and has to write on the back, make sure they sign and date the back of the page, as well.

What happens next?

See our article on “Locating and Interviewing Witnesses” for more information regarding how to maximize the usefulness of your witness statements with the insurance provider. Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you!

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