Individuals who are injured as a result of a Virginia traffic accident will often face one common problem:
In the tense moments after a traffic accident, when you’re either on your way to the hospital or trying to drag your vehicle out of the road, how do you preserve the evidence that proves you were not at fault for the crash?
Given that there are over 125,000 traffic accidents in Virginia every single year, it’s understandable for some people to experience difficulty in documenting their accident.
This fact is especially true when you consider a new Virginia law regarding the “spoliation of evidence” after a traffic accident.
In this article, we’ll provide a quick overview to the types of evidence you’ll need to collect for your personal injury claim.
We’ll also provide five general tips that can help you preserve your evidence after a traffic accident.
Types of Evidence in Virginia Traffic Accident Cases
When a lawyer says the word “evidence,” they are most likely referring to a very different body of knowledge than the one you’re accustomed to.
When it comes to personal injury cases, attorneys (and insurance companies) also have to follow a similarly specific set of rules.
Further, since many personal injury cases settle before even appearing in court, there is an even more complicated level of evidence that may be persuasive to the insurance company during settlement negotiations, but may not be acceptable in a conventional courtroom.
The best examples of this fact would be accident reports drafted by police officers, which are not accepted as evidence in court for Virginia personal injury cases.
Collect Many Different Types of Evidence
In general, you should try to collect as much evidence as possible about your case.
Then you can let your attorney (or insurance company) work out which pieces of evidence apply to your specific situation.
While “document everything” may not seem like the most helpful statement, it’s generally the recommended action in personal injury cases.
You should also try to collect several different types of evidence if at all possible.
This evidence can include things such as:
- Pictures of the accident or your injuries
- Casts, scars, things from the accident, weather reports, and other forms of physical evidence
- Proof of financial damages, such as lost wages, costs associated with limited mobility, or an increased difficulty in performing your job
- Hospital bills, prescriptions, and ongoing pain and suffering costs
- Personal damages, such as if your spouse has to take off from work in order to care for you
- Testimonial evidence, such as eyewitness testimony from the crash
- Expert testimony, such as statements from your doctor or mechanic
Each of these pieces of evidence can correlate to a specific monetary value, often called “damages.”
The primary goal of your personal injury claim, then, should be to connect these pieces of evidence to the specific monetary award that you’re seeking.
For example, if you have to spend the night in the ER your damages for this event will be the medical bill from that stay.
In court, you’ll have to present evidence (such as the physical medical bills or testimony from your doctor) to support your claim for that award.
You will then go through this process for each element of your claim, such as costs associated with paying for your car or an award to make up for lost wages.
The New “Spoliation of Evidence” Law
As one final note before we move to the next section, you should make sure to read the new Virginia law on the “spoliation of evidence” in personal injury cases.
“A party or potential litigant has a duty to preserve evidence that may be relevant to reasonably foreseeable litigation.”Virginia Code § 8.01-379.2:1(A)
Essentially, it’s always been a bad idea to destroy, alter, conceal, or otherwise manipulate evidence in personal injury cases.
This law simply extends the powers that judges have in cases where they find that certain pieces of evidence have been “spoiled.”
Put another way, losing or failing to properly document evidence can now have a profoundly negative effect on your personal injury case.
5 Tips to Help You Preserve Evidence After a Crash
There are a few crucial steps you should take to preserve evidence after a traffic accident, regardless of how extreme the event may have been.
From a fender-bender to a multi-car pile-up, the general rules for evidence remain the same.
All that changes (in most cases) is the scale of the claim and the amount of evidence you need to collect.
In general, your goal after an accident should be to compile and maintain any evidence which supports three key points:
- How the accident occurred in the first place (i.e. “proving who was at fault”).
- The immediate scale of the accident (such as pictures after the crash or witness testimony).
- How the accident has affected your day-to-day life (i.e. “proving the amount of damages you sustained as a result of the accident”).
Below, we’ll outline five general tips which can help you solidify these three points in your eventual personal injury claim.
Tip #1 – Stay Calm and Call the Police
However, calling the police after an accident is generally a good idea, and serves three general purposes.
First, having an impartial witness at the scene of the crime can be beneficial in keeping the peace.
Since traffic accidents can often become heated affairs, having an officer on the scene can help make the entire process go smoothly.
Second, police officers will usually draft an accident report that outlines what they experienced at the scene of the accident.
While accident reports are not admissible as evidence in court, they can still be helpful in your settlement negotiations.
This is especially true if the other driver admits fault in front of the officer, and the officer writes that admission of guilt into their report.
Third, the police will often collect information about other types of evidence you may want to look into.
For example, the police report may document the names and phone numbers of people who witnessed the crash, or provide useful information about the environment around the accident.
Tip #2 – Take Lots of Photographs
You can never have too many photographs after a traffic accident.
However, on the practical side of things, you should always remember to stay safe while taking these pictures.
As a few general tips of things you should take pictures of, try to get both broad and close-up shots of all the following:
- The back of the other vehicle and other identifying information of the other party.
- Your own injuries and those of any passengers in your vehicle.
- Both vehicles involved, even if no damage has occurred.
- Skid marks, environmental damage, and debris caused by the accident.
- Any relevant weather conditions, including icy roads or large amounts of water.
- The other driver, only for identification reasons if they flee the scene – don’t take pictures of injured people and use your common sense.
Again, only take these photographs if you are capable of doing so safely.
Tip #3 – Collect Witness Testimony, Seek Out Expert Testimony
As noted above, the whole point of evidence is to support (or establish) certain facts in your case.
In this way, eyewitnesses who actually saw the crash may be helpful in proving who was at fault for the accident.
They may also be able to help you support claims about the extent of your injuries.
Similarly, expert testimony can be beneficial in establishing or supporting monetary amounts for certain damages.
For example, your doctor could testify that a medical procedure was necessary for your care, while an ER nurse could help establish the extent of your injuries in a pain-and-suffering claim.
Meanwhile, testimony from your boss or co-workers could help support a claim for a decrease in productivity at work.
In all of these instances, testimony can help turn a “my word versus theirs” case into an “our word versus theirs” argument, which is much more persuasive.
Tip #4 – Make a Pain Journal
As we noted above, you can make a claim for any material change in your day-to-day life.
However, many individuals experience difficulty in properly quantifying and qualifying these claims during their personal injury case.
How, for example, do you assign a monetary value to an increased difficulty in climbing stairs?
While “pain and suffering” is a bit of a fluid expression that can change on a case-by-case basis, the easiest way to record everyday pain and suffering is to simply take notes on your pain and suffering.
The primary purpose of this journal is to record any painful experiences you have as a result of injuries sustained in your accident.
To use the stair example from above, you could create a spreadsheet that lists your activity, pain level, and any effects that pain had on your life:
Keeping a journal such as this can help support any claims you may have for damages related to changes in your everyday life.
Tip #5 – Take Steps to Preserve Everything
Just like how you should preserve and back-up normal files on your computer, you should take steps to protect the evidence you collected after the accident.
In this way, it’s highly recommended that you save several copies of every piece of evidence you have.
To take an idea from the technology sector, try to have at least four versions of every piece of evidence you’ve collected:
- The “primary” piece of evidence
- A local backup of this primary piece of evidence (such as a scanned copy of a document on your computer or a flash-drive in your desk drawer)
- At least two off-site backups (such a saved copy in a Cloud service or a physical file at your attorney’s office with scans of all your documents)
Especially when it comes to evidence that’s critical to your case, you’ll want to take steps to minimize the chance of data loss or misplaced physical papers.
Not only is doing so incredibly easy, having backups of your evidence can also provide you a great deal of peace-of-mind in your case.
Traffic accidents are serious events that can lead to massive repair costs and, in more serious cases, life-altering medical bills.
For this reason, you should take steps to properly document and preserve any and all evidence that may be useful in an eventual personal injury claim.
“Evidence,” in this situation, can include anything from pictures of the accident to pain journals, witness testimony, and even proof of a decrease in your productivity at work, such as a performance review from your boss.
As noted above, any material change to your normal life can lead to a personal injury claim.
The strength of that claim, however, will greatly depend on the quantity, quality, and variance of the evidence you (and your attorney) have collected.
For this reason, it’s highly recommended that you review your case with the assistance of an attorney if you believe that your claim is large enough to warrant a fight with an insurance company.