Automobile accidents are generally investigated by the local police or by the state highway patrol. The officers involved in the investigation write an accident report showing what they found. This police report can be used by you or your attorney in investigating what the officers think happened to cause the accident, and the information from the report can be very helpful if a lawsuit is filed.
You or your attorney should check with any relevant federal, state and municipal governments to obtain copies of law enforcement reports. Some of these reports are a matter of public record and are available for a small fee. Some reports might not be available, for example, when a criminal prosecution is involved, or the reports are confidential in nature, and can be obtained through discovery, the court process for obtaining information once a law suit has been filed.
Insurance companies that issued policies covering other people who were involved in the accident will also want a copy of the police report. These companies are subject to the same restrictions as you're in obtaining the report. A police report is generally not required in order to file an insurance claim. However, the insurance companies will want that report if they have to pursue or defend a lawsuit.
Contents of a Police Report
A typical police report contains the following information:
- The date, time and place of the accident
- The details of the accident, including a diagram of the accident scene
- The names of all parties and witnesses involved in the accident, including the owners and drivers of vehicles, and the owners of the property involved in the accident
- A description of the driver, including his or her age and license number
- The names and addresses of all injured parties, and a summary of their injuries, including the place where they received medical attention
- A description of the accident, ranging from brief to detailed
- The weather, lighting and road conditions
- The property damage sustained, and
- A description of the vehicles involved in the accident
You should note that the information in the report doesn't necessarily reflect what actually happened. For instance, a traffic report may contain errors such as wrong speeds, points of impact centered incorrectly or blame placed on the wrong party. However, that information might be presented in court someday, and you and your attorney should know about that information before trial in order to be prepared to challenge its accuracy.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can anyone get a copy of a police report on an accident, or do you have to be involved in the accident in some way?
- Police department staff told me I couldn't get a copy of an accident report. Do they have to tell me why? I think they were giving me the runaround.
- How much weight does the accident report carry in court cases, both criminal and civil? I'm concerned because there were errors in my accident report and the police aren't being helpful in making corrections.
- Can I file accident reports for collisions that happen on private property, such as the shopping mall parking lot?