Playing Post-Accident Sleuth

By Jason Wolf & Justin Parafinczuk | September 29, 2014

A truck gets into a collision with a car. The two drivers dispute fault and witness statements have been taken and are part of the filed police report. The insurance company for the truck’s owner is left to try to determine liability, even beyond what is in the official report.

Thousands of dollars in property damage could be at stake, not to mention much more if either party claims physical injuries. Ferreting out the truth is critical to minimizing an insured’s fault and economic liability.

This leaves the process in the hands of the insured’s insurance provider and, more directly, the claims adjuster.

Beyond reviewing the police report and possibly talking with the truck’s operator, what can the claims adjuster for the trucking company’s insurance provider do to uncover the truth or ensure the veracity of statements made?

It’s vital to collect as much evidence as possible to ensure an honest rebuilding of the accident.

First Things First

Typically, the adjuster will ask for a personal statement from the insured describing the accident and the driver’s belief as to who was at fault. The adjuster also will seek statements from others, including drivers, passengers and those witnesses who remained on the scene after the dust settled, both to get their perspectives as well as to find corroboration and conflicting opinions.

Of course, a copy of the accident report as filed by the police agency that responded is vital to getting the official determination of fault. In some states or jurisdictions, reports are provided for a fee by third-party accident reporting services.

These are the most obvious sources of evidentiary material, the “low-hanging fruit,” as it were, that’s most easily gathered.

From this point, questions asked and sources explored may need to get creative. The information gathered can help piece together a puzzle and turn the table in defense of an accident claim.

What questions should you ask or what other information should you look for? The list below includes common sources of evidentiary details, as well as some that can prove a deeper wellspring of data in the search for that corroborating information.

In fact, the list below should be part of a standard array of questions asked of those involved or sources of data collected after any accident where fault is contested.

Sworn statements. Claims adjusters often will seek sworn statements from the insureds. Drivers of passenger vehicles legally are obligated to provide sworn statements. Drivers of commercial vehicles, like trucks, covered by commercial policies are not under any such obligation. Moreover, conversations between representatives of the insurance provider and the vehicle operator are considered privileged and not subject to standard disclosure requirements.

Vehicle(s). The need for accident site or vehicle preservation often conflicts with the drivers’ or owners’ desires to repair damages. Therefore, time is of the essence. If a vehicle is being repaired or has been deemed a total loss and is headed to the scrap heap, get visual evidence of it before it’s repaired or junked. Once fixed or destroyed, any chance at supporting evidence could be lost.

Video or still photography images. Cameras are nearly everywhere in public. From a driver’s, passenger’s or witness’s smartphone camera, to commercial security cameras in the surrounding area, to traffic cameras and “red light” cameras, to “dash cams” in various vehicles, photographic evidence may exist. But adjusters won’t know unless they ask.

At the time of the accident, did the trucking company have dashboard cameras, or side- and rear-view cameras installed on the vehicle in question? Did anyone shoot images of the accident itself or the aftermath?

Images from nearby security cameras or even an overhead view from Google Earth may be available. Visiting area commercial or retail properties might reveal the presence of security cameras positioned to capture the accident scene. Increasingly used for property insurance claims, images from Google Earth could prove beneficial in vehicle accidents as well.

Remember to ask for images as soon as possible after the event. Data from security cameras often is overwritten at regular intervals.

Similarly, the adjuster must work quickly to ascertain whether street-view cameras were operational and captured any useful images. It could take a court order to secure the imagery.

Traffic light programming. As departments of transportation seek to smooth out traffic flow, they program traffic lights to run in sequence. Requesting such traffic light and time-stamp information can help accident re-creation or reconstruction experts place a vehicle at an intersection, and tell whether the light was green, yellow or red and who might have had the right of way.

Other property damage. Matching property damage to vehicular damage or marks can line up reality regarding the accident. Are there tell-tale scratch patterns on the car, skid marks on the street, or collateral or ancillary property damage that may be used as evidence? Try to determine what was new, and what already existed. Matching property damage, like damage to rails, signs, fences, other structures, even trees or large foliage, to marks on either vehicle can re-create trajectory of the vehicles before, during and after the accident itself.

“Snapshot” data. Increasingly, insurance companies are encouraging drivers to install small data collection devices into the onboard diagnostics, or an OBD-II port, under the vehicle’s dashboard or steering column. Coupled with GPS tracking data, often installed on trucks, this digital data can help the insurance adjuster collect otherwise hard-to-gather insights.

Vehicle maintenance. From aesthetics to performance, a vehicle’s age and upkeep can affect its role in the accident and the value of a claim.

For example, a car with 100,000 miles could have numerous exterior dents or blemishes, which would reduce the value of a claim. More importantly, though, the brakes, tires, transmission or joints on older vehicles may have worn dangerously and perilously over time.

Review service records or receipts to help determine whether poor maintenance was at least partly to blame.

Subjective questions. Often, the simplest questions may go unasked, leaving key, even obvious details uncollected. Adjusters should ask the driver to recall such issues as the weather at the time of the accident. Was there rainwater, snow or ice on the ground? What was the speed at the time of the accident, both the insured’s and that of the other vehicle? When did you first see or hear the other vehicle involved in the accident?

What other vehicles were on the road that may have affected the accident? Was another vehicle involved in any way, possibly blocking either or both drivers’ views of the road or vehicles? Ask the insured how he or she reacted. A driver’s reaction can help highlight possible outcomes.

With this data in hand, traffic and accident experts and reconstructionists can piece together a re-creation of the accident. It’s vital that as much information is collected and as much evidence as possible is preserved to ensure an honest rebuilding of the situation – and the solving of the puzzle.

About Jason Wolf & Justin Parafinczuk

Wolf is the managing partner at Koch Parafinczuk & Wolf, P.A., a statewide insurance defense firm in Florida. Parafinczuk is a shareholder at Koch Parafinczuk & Wolf.

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