Witnessing a car accident can be shocking and upsetting. If you were close enough to the accident to see what happened, then it's possible you only narrowly escaped being involved in the accident yourself. At a moment like that, it can be hard to think clearly and decide what to do next. Are you required to stop and help, or call the police? Do you have to share your name and contact information with the police or the people involved? What will you have to do if you're called as a witness in a court case?
Check out a few things you need to know about your rights and responsibilities as a witness to an accident.
Duty to Rescue
The first thing you need to know is whether or not you have a duty to rescue. In most of the United States, you're not legally required to do anything if you witness strangers get into a car accident. However, ten states do have laws requiring you to take action if doing so doesn't place you in danger.
This means while you're never required to pull someone out of a burning vehicle, putting your own life at risk, you may be obligated to at least pull over to a safe spot and call 911 to alert rescue personnel someone is trapped in a burning vehicle. In the rest of the country, you have the right to keep going and not involve yourself if you don't want to.
Many would argue that even without a legal responsibility to act, you have an ethical duty to at least stop and report the accident if you happen to witness one. It's certainly the kindest thing to do. Don't assume someone else will report the accident or help the victims if you do not – it's just as likely everyone else around you is also assuming someone else will do it. The only way to be sure the accident has been reported is to report it yourself.
Good Samaritan Laws
Good Samaritan laws are sometimes confused with duty to rescue laws, but they're actually very different things. Good Samaritan laws protect you in the event you harm someone while attempting to help or rescue them. Like duty to protect laws, though, they vary by state.
New York, for example, provides immunity for anyone who assists in an emergency. You can't be sued for rescuing someone in danger, even if you injure them. Other states only provide immunity for certain people, like medical professionals or emergency rescue workers, but not for laypeople. And some states provide no immunity at all. It's a good idea to know what Good Samaritan Laws exist in your area before attempting any potentially dangerous rescues.
Whether or not you should attempt to rescue an accident victim is ultimately a personal decision that comes down to your own personal ethics and beliefs. However, calling 911 and sticking around to give a witness report of the accident is always a safe move. It won't cost you anything but time, and it can't put you in danger or legal trouble.
If you decide to stop and report the accident or offer help to the victims, then you will probably be called upon to act as a witness. The police at the scene will most likely ask you to fill out a witness report describing what you saw and what actions you took. You'll need to provide your contact information to the police, and the accident victims may ask for your information as well.
At some point after the accident, you may be contacted by an auto accident attorney. This will happen if one of the people involved in the car accident decides to sue the other. Your statement will be used to corroborate either the plaintiff's or the defendant's side of the story. You'll be asked to give a deposition, where you'll repeat your statement under oath in front of the plaintiff and defendant, their accident attorneys, and a court reporter. That may be all that is needed, but in some cases you may also be asked to testify in open court.
While testifying under oath can seem intimidating, you shouldn't worry about it. Just recount what happened honestly. Don't be afraid to say "I don't remember" if you can't remember something, or "I don't understand" if the question confuses you. Once you say something under oath, you're stuck with it, so it's better to admit when you don't remember or when you're confused than to say something that can be contradicted on the stand.
A witness has the opportunity to save lives at the scene of the accident – even if just by calling 911 quickly – and the opportunity to help victims by honestly recounting what they saw at the scene of the accident. If you witness an accident, think about what you would want a witness to do if you were the one involved in the accident. If you have questions about your legal status as an accident witness, a local auto accident attorney should be able to advise you.