- How Eyewitness Testimony Can Help Win a Personal Injury Case
How Eyewitness Testimony Can Help Win a Personal Injury Case
In a recent article, we discussed the importance of expert witnesses in helping us win personal injury settlements for our clients. Through their professional testimony, these respected outside experts provide evidence that can be highly persuasive to judges and juries who are considering the causes of our clients’ injuries and their long-term ramifications.
This week, we’ll examine other kinds of witnesses who can help describe what led to innocent people getting injured. These witnesses are usually called “fact witnesses” (or sometimes “lay witness”) because they speak only to the facts of the incident as they personally observed them, and they aren’t usually asked to offer professional opinions as to the causes or effects of our client’s injuries. And unlike expert witnesses, “fact witnesses” are not compensated for appearing in court beyond reimbursement for mileage and a nominal witness fee in some cases.
Who Can Be Called Upon to Serve as a Fact Witness?
Witnessing a crime or a car accident can be a dramatic (and sometimes traumatic) event. But sadly, it’s not an uncommon one. In 2021, there were nearly 300,000 car accidents in Michigan. In just the first 2.5 months of 2023,, 150 people died in motor vehicle-related incidents across the state. Essentially, anyone who personally observes an injury, an accident, or a crash can be asked to serve as a witness. These include eyewitnesses who were present at the scene, coworkers who might have noticed actions that led up to a colleague being hurt at work, other drivers in nearby vehicles who saw what happened, passengers in your car (or in the vehicle that hit yours), and even friends, family members or law enforcement officers who were there. Let’s briefly discuss each of these kinds of witnesses and how their testimony might be helpful.
Eyewitnesses, other than yourself and the other driver involved in a car crash, are usually people not directly impacted by the accident but who just happened to be nearby when it happened. By seeing what took place in person, they offer an opportunity for the judge and members of the jury to hear firsthand who was to blame for the incident, and how it all unfolded. As unbiased onlookers, these people provide insights in their sworn testimony that can paint a vivid picture of the events leading up to and during the accident.
Coworkers and sometimes even supervisors can serve as witnesses, testifying about working conditions or situations that resulted in danger to their fellow employees. They might have even previously called attention to these hazards with management themselves, or warned their colleagues of the possibility of injury, and can offer insight into how an employer did (or did not) address their concerns. These witnesses are often called upon in workers’ compensation cases where on-the-job injuries might be preventing a victim from working and when time off is needed for recovery and rehabilitation.
Law enforcement professionals are often called upon as witnesses. As we’ve mentioned before, police reports aren’t usually presented as evidence in a courtroom proceeding, but police officers can be called upon to personally testify – especially if they observed what happened before, during or even after the incident in which you were hurt. As such, like any other lay witnesses, police officers typically testify to the facts they observed, and they do not offer personal opinions unless they are “based on firsthand knowledge or observation” and “helpful in resolving issues” related to the case. However, in some cases, police officers can also be qualified as expert witnesses in various fields and would then be allowed to offer expert witness opinion testimony on those fields as well as lay witness fact testimony on the scene of a crash or other incident.
You might also be called as a witness to discuss what happened, to explain how you have been affected by the accident, and to describe any injuries you’ve suffered. In a moment, we’ll offer some guidance on how you can prepare to be the best possible witness if you’re ever called upon to take the stand.
Can Witnesses Be Forced to Testify?
Witnesses can either come forward on their own or they can be required to testify by subpoena, which is a legal document that compels witnesses to appear or to face a year in prison and/or up to a $10,000 fine if they choose to ignore the summons. Witnesses might be asked to testify in person in court, or they can be required to give a sworn deposition outside of the courtroom. Whether they testify willingly or under the force of a subpoena, witnesses who are subsequently proven to have lied under oath can face felony perjury charges which carry a 15-year prison term.
By the way, even witnesses who live far away in another state can be required to testify in proceedings here in Michigan. And they can even be forcibly arrested and conveyed to the site of the trial for that purpose, as the National Association of Attorneys General explains in a detailed legal analysis of the Uniform Act to Secure the Attendance of Witnesses.
How to Be the Best Possible Witness
Testifying in court is not an easy thing to do. It can cause feelings of anxiety and bring back memories of the pain and suffering you’ve experienced ever since you were injured. That’s why if you’re ever called to testify about your injuries, their cause, and their aftermath, you’ll want to be mentally and physically prepared. Thankfully, the State Bar of Michigan offers some guidance to people who are called upon to serve as witnesses. They recognize that most folks are unfamiliar with the legal process and want to reassure witnesses of the value and importance of their testimony in helping justice prevail. To that end, witnesses are advised as follows by many courts across the state. This list, paraphrasing the State Bar’s good advice, comes from the 50th District Court in Oakland County:
Stay Cool. Don’t let the strange and formal environment of the courtroom upset your composure. Be yourself and stay as relaxed as possible.
Be On Time. The Court must handle many cases. Your tardiness could seriously interfere with the court’s schedule.
Be Presentable. Court business is a serious matter. Dress accordingly.
Be Attentive. Don’t lounge and slump. Sit upright in the witness chair and be alert. Listen carefully to every question. If you don’t understand something, ask to have it repeated as many times as necessary. Don’t answer a question you don’t understand. Answer directly, thoughtfully, and truthfully.
Don’t Argue. No matter which side called you as a witness; be polite and courteous to the Judge or the lawyer asking the questions. Hold your temper and never argue with the person questioning you. It could reflect on your believability and tend to lessen the importance of your testimony.
Do Not Volunteer Anything. Answer only the question being asked. If a simple “yes” or “no” cannot answer it, then answer in more detail, but stick to the question and don’t go beyond it.
Do Not Guess. Answer only what you know or saw yourself. Do not speculate or guess. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, just say so and wait for the next question. There’s no need to apologize.
Do Not Talk Out of Turn. Sometimes one of the lawyers may object to a question being asked. This is the lawyer’s right. The objection may be raised before you answer, or while you are answering. When this happens, immediately stop talking right away. The Judge will rule on the objection, and then instruct you whether to answer.
Speak to the Jury. If the case is being tried before a jury; direct your answers to them. If it is a case without a jury, answer so that the Judge can hear and see you. Eye contact helps to establish your relationship with the Judge and jury.
Speak Clearly. Don’t mumble or be vague. The court reporter must be able to record every word. Each juror needs to hear the answers. Speak in a clear and confident tone of voice.
Correct Any Mistakes. A wrong answer should be corrected immediately. Unclear answers should be fully explained. Remember — everything goes on the transcript. Don’t be embarrassed or hesitate to correct and answer during the time you are on the witness stand. Anyone can make a mistake.
Always Tell the Truth. Every court case is a search for the truth, for what happened. As a witness you are under oath and expected to tell the truth always, to the best of your knowledge. The penalties for untruthful testimony are severe. As a witness, you are an essential part of the trial. It may be very inconvenient for you to take time off and come to court and testify but remember that the day may come when you need someone to appear as a witness on your behalf, to help you protect your rights under the law.
Your Responsibility. As with most things, the system of justice is not perfect. But every citizen has a responsibility to make it work. When you serve as a witness or a juror, you help make the system of justice work.
If That Sounds Intimidating, Don’t Worry – We’re Here for You
You can depend on us to be there for you in depositions, during legal proceedings, and in the courtroom. In fact, we’re also here for you right now 24/7/365 at 855-MIKE-WINS (855-645-3946) or online. Pick up the phone whenever you need us. We’ll be at the other end of the line anytime you give us a call.