If you've been involved in an automobile accident, it's in your best interests to call the police and have them come to the scene so that the incident is documented in a police report -- no matter who you think is at fault for the crash.
If fault lies with the other driver, the police report can be very useful as leverage in negotiations or in guiding a court to find in your favor. If you are at fault, the report will set the scope for your liability and help define the extent of the damage.
When an officer comes to the scene of an accident, he or she does a few standard things. If medical attention is needed, the officer will call it in, but assuming that there is no such need, the officer's first job is to try to get the cars out of traffic. The officer will also take pictures of the accident scene and of damage to the vehicles. If there are skid marks leading up to the impact, the officer will measure those. Finally, the officer will try to get official statements from the drivers involved, and from any witnesses.
From the testimony of the drivers and witnesses, the physical evidence at the scene of the accident, the officer's experience in investigating accidents, and any special training that the officer has, he or she will prepare a report that details how the accident happened. This report will likely include the officer's opinion as to the cause of the accident -- who was at fault.
While the police officer's conclusions as to who caused the accident may result in a ticket for the at-fault driver, the report is not necessarily a final determination of liability. But the report will carry a lot of weight during settlement negotiations with an insurance company, and in any personal injury lawsuit. If you're on the right side of any fault finding, and the officer stated that the other driver caused the accident, the report is a huge asset.
But what if the report points the finger squarely at you? The other driver's insurance company may try to bully you with the report. If the officer decided that you were at fault and included that determination in his or her report, the insurance company has a potent weapon to try to claim that it is hopeless for you to hold out and that you better settle right now -- for a dollar amount of their choosing. If you find yourself in this position, it may be an uphill battle, as courts tend to reflexively trust the police.
An attorney may be able to help you with that battle. There are still ways to attack the findings of a police report. Always ask what sort of information the officer received. and from whom. Does the report say that you were travelling 55 miles in a 35 zone just because that's what the other driver said, even though you know that is not true? Was the officer relying on a witness who said the light was red, when that witness may not have been in a position to see the traffic signal? (Learn more about How to Amend a Police Report After the Fact.)
Another potential avenue of attack is to measure the officer's training against his or her findings in the report. Perhaps the best example of this is skid mark analysis. While 10 feet of skid marks leading to the point of impact can probably indicate that the driver did not start breaking until 10 feet before the point of impact, the same cannot be said for estimating a vehicle's speed from the length of the skid marks. It is possible to do this with some accuracy, but it requires special training that is not standard for most police departments. Because this determination requires special knowledge or training beyond the experience of normal people, courts require a showing of such knowledge or training before this kind of determination can be admissible. The same concept can be applied to other special measurements and conjectures.
Much like the version of the Miranda rights you hear so often on TV, anything you say to an officer that makes it into the report can, and probably will, be used against you later on in the insurance claim or lawsuit process. Much as you should not admit liability to the other driver, you must watch what you tell the police and what you sign. (More tips: Be Careful What You Say at the Scene of Your Car Accident.)
When you are in a car accident and the police have been called, any police report that's prepared can make your case impenetrable, or blow holes into it that you may not be able to shore up. The best way to protect yourself may be to consult an experienced personal injury attorney.