Suspicion usually is cast on hit-and-run auto accidents. This is particularly true when the plaintiff is a professional litigant with a clear pattern of prior accidents involving a nearly identical set of circumstances.
Such was the case of a recent Michigan plaintiff who was seeking uninsured motorist benefits. In November 2013, the plaintiff alleged that, while he and his front- and back-seat passengers were traveling 30 to 40 miles per hour on Westbound I-94, his Lincoln MKZ was struck in a hit-and-run by a truck. The vehicle was rear-ended and pushed into a cement barrier near an exit ramp. Following the impact, he testified that his head struck the windshield.
However, the event data recorder (EDR) downloaded from the Lincoln told a different story. The empirical data verified that the vehicle was traveling only seven to 12 miles per hour immediately before the time of impact, not 30 to 40 miles per hour as alleged by the plaintiff. Remarkably, the EDR also verified that there was no passenger in the front seat.
To compound matters, the defendant’s accident reconstructionist testified that the rear damage to the subject vehicle was not caused by a truck and there was no way that the driver’s head could have struck the center of the windshield while restrained by a seat belt. Rather, the damage to the windshield was most likely caused by a blunt object other than a head.
Emergency room records verified that there were no cuts, bruises, or any inkling of head trauma found on the plaintiff, and its records lined up with the opinions of the accident reconstructionist. Not surprisingly, the defense received a favorable verdict in just 10 minutes.
When it comes to defending bodily injury cases, the acute period of time following an incident is crucial to a fraud investigation. Claims professionals and special investigative unit (SIU) specialists are the first-line responders; they are the equivalent of emergency medical services (EMS), police, and fire departments all rolled into one. The more information they collect up front, the better the chances are of blowing the case open later, when it is in litigation.
When that first phone call comes into the insurance company—whether it is the day of the accident, a week later, or six months later—it is important to be as detailed as possible in gathering information. Pretend as if you are a newspaper reporter, there is a breaking story, the key witness is on the phone, and the story is going to appear on Page 1 in tomorrow’s newspaper. Be sure to:
- Try to get the call on tape. That way, you’ll have them locked into a story. Even if they do not agree to this, be thorough in your claim log notes. Your notes could be the primary exhibit at trial one day and shown to the entire world.
- Have the claimant vividly describe who else was in the vehicle and where they were sitting; the exact location and how the accident occurred (rear-ender, side impact, head-on collision); their approximate speed just before the crash; whether they were belted; the points of impact between the two vehicles and what damage occurred; the hit-and-run vehicle; and whether the airbags deployed. Get out and take photographs of the vehicle as soon as possible, before it somehow vanishes.
- Find out whether or not the police investigated the scene of the accident or whether the plaintiff went over to the police station and made a self-serving report. Always check the time and date that the police report was made and compare it to the time of the alleged incident.
- Ask the plaintiff these questions: Did any part of their body strike anything inside the vehicle? Did their head hit the steering wheel or the windshield? Did they lose consciousness? Did their knees hit the dashboard? Did their arm strike the door or the window? Go from head to toe and rule out injuries one by one. Then find out if EMS came to the scene or the plaintiff went to the emergency room that day.
In addition to the above list, remind yourself to ask who, what, when, where, why, and how. The more red flags you see flying, the better the chance you have of demonstrating that a hit-and-run accident never happened in the first place.