Why a Car Accident Police Report Can Help Your Accident Claim

We hope that you and your loved ones never get into a car accident. But it’s not unlikely. Across Pennsylvania, 37,299 motor vehicle crashes resulted in injuries to drivers and passengers in a recent year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PDOT). An additional 529 car crashes in the Keystone State caused fatalities that year.

If someone does crash into you, a police report serves as a record that you followed state law by reporting the accident and not leaving the scene. It can also play an important role in the process of obtaining compensation for any injuries or losses you may have suffered.

Reporting an Accident: The Law

If you get into a car accident anywhere in Pennsylvania, then you must report an accident to the local or state police in case of:

  • Injury, regardless of severity;
  • Death; or
  • Vehicle damage to the point where the driver can’t drive it away from the accident scene.

Dial 911 to report an accident. The police will come to the scene and, by law, they must file a report on the accident within five days. If, for any reason, the police do not respond to the scene of the crash, then you must fill out a crash report yourself within five days and send it to PDOT.

Sometimes, PDOT may require involved individuals to fill out a crash report even if the police also filed a report. PDOT will notify you if that’s the case.

The law also requires everyone in an accident to render aid to others who are injured. Tell the 911 dispatcher if anyone appears to have suffered injuries in the crash so that an ambulance also responds to the scene.

Finally, the law requires that you never leave the scene of an accident. Leaving an accident scene is illegal, and could expose you to criminal liability. Stay at the crash scene until the police tell you that you can go. Of course, if you sustain serious injuries, then you do not need to obtain police permission, because emergency medical personnel will take you from the scene to a nearby hospital for emergency medical care.

How to Get a Copy of the Car Accident Police Report

You need to obtain and keep a copy of the crash report, as it provides important evidence and data about the crash. As a victim of an accident, you always have the right to a copy of the report.

The steps to take to obtain a report depend on which law enforcement agency responded to the scene of your accident. Here are some examples.

Getting a Report From the Pennsylvania State Police

If a State Police trooper responded to your accident scene, you can request a copy of the accident through the State Police website, or by mailing a request form to the Crash Reports Unit in Harrisburg (see the website for the mailing address). The fee for a report is $22. Wait 15 days after the accident before submitting your request.

Getting a Report from the City of Philadelphia Police Department

If your crash happened in Philadelphia and a city police officer responded to the scene, then you can obtain a copy of the report in person at the Records Department at City Hall, or by mailing a request form available on the City of Philadelphia Records Department website. The fee for a report is $25. You can also obtain photographs of the accident scene, if police took any, for an additional fee.

Getting a Report from a Township Police Department or County Sheriff

If a township police officer or a county sheriff’s deputy responded to your accident, call the department directly for instructions about how to obtain a report. Many local police departments will also post instructions on their websites.

Who Else Can Get a Car Accident Report?

Accident victims in Pennsylvania understandably worry about their privacy, and wonder whether anyone can obtain a copy of their car accident report. The answer is no.

Under Pennsylvania law, only these persons may obtain a copy of your car accident report:

  • Anyone in the accident;
  • An attorney for anyone in the accident;
  • An insurer of anyone in the accident;
  • The Federal Government;
  • The military;
  • Pennsylvania government agencies and officials; and
  • Agencies of other states and nations and their political subdivisions.

Notably, the press does not have the right to obtain an accident report. Neither does your neighbor or your employer.

What the Car Accident Report Says, and Doesn’t Say

The car accident report may serve as an important piece of information in determining legal liability for the crash that injured you.

According to PDOT’s official Crash Report Manual, a standard car accident report contains information such as:

  • The names and contact information for drivers and passengers involved in the car accident;
  • A description of the vehicle(s) that crashed and the crash location;
  • A rough diagram of the accident scene and how the accident happened;
  • Factors identified as playing a role in the cause of the accident; and
  • The police officer’s narrative description of what happened or of any observations the officer made that are not otherwise covered elsewhere in the report.

A car accident report represents a trained police officer’s initial collection and assessment of evidence about a crash. It’s important, but also limited. It only contains information available to an officer at the scene and/or shortly thereafter. That information is not necessarily complete. It may not always be accurate.

For that reason, experienced attorneys treat a car accident report as an important source of information about an accident, but not necessarily as the final word on how the accident happened or who should bear the blame.

How Lawyers Use Car Accident Reports

Oftentimes, getting to the root cause of a crash requires far more fact-gathering and expert analysis than a police officer can realistically conduct. In those cases, the police car accident report frequently serves as the jumping-off point for a deeper dive into the facts, and not as a conclusive statement about what occurred.

Lawyers use car accident reports, for example, to:

  • Learn basic facts about an accident—date, time, location, etc.;
  • Locate and speak with witnesses about the accident;
  • Identify what items of physical evidence, such as damaged vehicle parts, need examining;
  • Spot inconsistencies or discrepancies in other available accounts of the accident (such as statements from witnesses); and
  • Serve as a summary of the accident to give to an accident reconstruction expert.

In other words, a car accident report represents a piece of the factual puzzle a crash victim’s lawyer can use in building a case.

Car Accident Reports Do Not Prove Liability in Court

The report seldom constitutes the entire case.

Accident victims sometimes get a copy of the police report for their crash, see that it blames the other driver, and think, “Great! This proves my case!”

The report seems so official and straightforward that they imagine getting compensation for their injuries will amount to nothing more than going to court and handing the report to the judge.

Not so.

A car accident report reflects a police officer’s out-of-court statements about the cause of a crash. As such, it constitutes hearsay, a category of evidence that courts usually will not accept as proof of a fact. In fact, Pennsylvania law specifically outlaws using a police car accident report “as evidence in any action for damages or criminal proceedings arising out of a motor vehicle accident.”

Lawyers who want to prove the facts contained in a police report must usually, instead, call the police officer who prepared the report to testify about those facts and be subject to cross-examination.

This reflects another way that a police report, while it constitutes an important source of information about a crash, does not necessarily serve as the last or most definitive word on the subject. A car accident lawyer might show the report to the police officer who testifies, to help the officer remember. However, the officer’s recollection and statements on the witness stand, not what the report contains, tend to matter most.

But, Car Accident Reports May Help to Settle a Case

That is not to say, however, that a car accident report has no value as proof of what happened in an accident. In the hands of an experienced car accident lawyer, a car accident report can facilitate the process of settling a car accident injury claim. Here’s what we mean.

A settlement is an agreement to resolve a claim by an injured party against a party accused of causing that injury. In a typical settlement, the accused party pays the injured party a fixed sum of money, and in exchange, the injured party agrees to release the accused party from further legal liability for an accident. The settlement, which is almost always put in writing and signed by the opposing parties, definitively puts an end to the injured party’s claim for damages.

Most car accident injury claims end in a settlement between the injured accident victim and the at-fault party, or more precisely, the at-fault party’s insurance company. Lawyers for the parties reach a settlement by negotiating in person, by phone or video conference, or over email. When they reach terms both of their clients can agree upon, one of them puts it in writing, the parties sign it, and money changes hands.

A skilled lawyer for a car accident victim can use a car accident report to help push negotiations forward. Of course, all lawyers understand that the report itself cannot serve as evidence in a courtroom. However, they also recognize that police officers have some training and authority when it comes to figuring out how an accident happened. Officers’ testimony carries weight on the witness stand.

Consequently, a car accident report that places blame on a party, or that describes the facts of an accident in a way that helps prove liability or damages, tends to send a signal about how a trial might turn out. It’s not definitive, but it’s often enough to convince the opposing party’s attorney and insurance adjuster to cut their losses and offer a reasonable settlement, rather than to risk a far-more expensive loss in a courtroom.

This is also a reason to obtain a police car accident report as soon as possible. Lawyers for accident victims want to have as much flexibility as possible in choosing when and how to engage in settlement negotiations. The sooner they have a car accident report in hand, the greater their opportunity to decide when and how to use it (or not) for their clients’ maximum benefit.

Were You Injured in a Car Accident? Here’s What to Do Next.

This blog post is about car accident reports, and so it goes without saying more that you should obtain a copy of the report for your crash as soon as you can (see above). But, that’s not all you should do.

Here are several other steps you might want to consider to help put you in the best position to obtain compensation for your injuries and losses.

  • Seek prompt medical care and follow your treatment plan. You cannot hope to receive compensation for injuries you ignored or did not treat thoroughly. Seek medical care right away to protect your health and to secure documentation of your injuries.
  • Do not agree to unsolicited settlement offers. Insurance companies may try to get you to agree to a snap settlement offer. Do not agree, and do not sign anything. These offers rarely pay you what you deserve.
  • Contact a car accident attorney right away. Making the most of your rights to compensation may depend on you taking quick action with the help of an experienced lawyer. Do not delay in getting the help you need.