When it comes to filing an auto insurance claim after an accident, the difference between a well-written police report and a poor one can be huge. Unfortunately, a new study casts doubt on just how great police officers really are at compiling these critical documents.
Leslie Seawright, a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas and author of the study, says there's a “huge disconnect” between what police officers consider important and what attorneys, judges and insurance companies expect from police reports.
After analyzing hundreds of police reports written by more than 100 cops in her region, Seawright concluded that training is not only limited (most police academies spend only about eight total hours on report writing) but often lacks outside input from lawyers, judges or insurance representatives.
Moreover, Seawright says, police departments are more focused on the appearance, grammar and perceived professionalism of a police report than with ensuring all the pertinent information is included. This means officers often leave out critical details from their reports, such as the full names and contact information of witnesses as well as the insurance information of all of the people involved.
“Police officers are super concerned with not misusing a word and not having a comma in the wrong place,” Seawright says. “But when you talk to prosecutors and defense attorneys, they couldn’t care less about grammar. I even had one tell me that police reports could be written phonetically for all he cared. What he was most concerned about was missing information.”
Tod Burke, a former Maryland police officer and a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, says Seawright’s findings are “absolutely valid.”
“I always stress to my students that you never know who’s going to read your report,” Burke says. “You’re going to have judges read it, lawyers read it, and maybe it will even go as high as the Supreme Court. And when it comes to insurance, whatever is written on that report is going to be critical to any investigation.”
Police reports and insurance claims
Lynette Simmons Hoag, a Chicago attorney who focuses on insurance law, says police reports are “absolutely essential” to the auto insurance claims process.
“A police report provides the insurance company with outside verification about the details of an accident and helps validate the facts of your case,” Hoag says. “And most insurance carriers will require you to obtain a police report before they even begin processing a claim.”
Drivers should read their insurance policies carefully and pay particular attention to the section titled “Your Duties,” she says. It's in this section that insurers outline whether a police report is required for processing accident claims.
A police report becomes even more important if the circumstances surrounding an accident cause the driver or insurance company to sue, which often happens when a debate surfaces about which driver was at fault. While police reports themselves are not admissible as evidence in court, they may be relied to approve or deny claims before a case heads to court.
“Since trials occur long after an accident has happened, a lawyer can use the police report to refresh an officer’s memory about the details,” says Tom Simeone, a personal injury attorney and part-time law professor in Washington, D.C. “That means an inaccurate or incomplete police report could lead to an unjust result.”
Police reports also play a critical role in making sure insurance claims are not fraudulent. Without a police report, insurers may wonder whether an accident was faked.
Furthermore, Florida personal injury attorney Shane Fischer says accurate police reports also can protect the interests of passengers who may have been hurt in a crash. For instance, if someone comes along after an accident and says he was an injured passenger, and yet that information wasn’t included in the police report, the insurance company may accuse that person of lying.
“Sure, he might have injured his shoulder or back, but it wasn’t a result of that accident because it’s not on the report,” Fischer says. “That adds a lot of unnecessary time to the insurance company’s investigation and to the injured passenger getting compensated.”
Certain types of accidents automatically will require the response of cops and the writing of a police report. These include any accident where someone is injured or killed, a driver flees the scene or at least one car is seriously damaged.
But most states don’t require a police report for accidents that fall outside those parameters. According to Eli Lehrer, vice president of the nonprofit research center The Heartland Institute, most auto insurance claims don't stem from injuries or crimes.
“The overwhelming majority of accident reports do not involve a crime or anyone who’s really a bad guy, and police want to catch bad guys,” Lehrer says. “So it’s going to be very difficult to get police officers to focus on what insurers want. Their job is to prevent crime, not document accidents in a way that fits the insurance company’s needs.”
This means drivers must be proactive in making sure an auto accident is well-documented by cops. Even if no injuries occur, Lehrer says, drivers should consider asking for a police report if:
• Someone admits blame but insists on offering cash payment rather than going through the insurance process.
• The other driver admits that he doesn’t have insurance coverage but offers to pay cash for damage to your vehicle. If that person isn’t truthful with his or her contact information, a police report can help track down the person if there’s a discrepancy.
• You're concerned about forgetting details of the accident. An accurate police report can be used by insurance adjusters to gather information that might otherwise have slipped your mind following a crash.
Even if a police report is written, Simeone cautions drivers not to take it for granted.
“I always tell people to act as if there’s no police report being done,” Simeone says. “Get all the information you need at the scene, and treat the police report as a bonus. Don’t assume everything will be in the report.”
Simeone recommends that drivers take several photos of the accident scene and all vehicle damage. Drivers also should gather specifics from the other drivers involved, including license plate numbers, insurance information and contact information. Finally, speak to any witnesses at the scene and take down their information.
“Many of my clients don’t bother to obtain witness information because they expect the police officer to put it in the report,” Simeone says. “However, the police don’t always include everything in the report that they should.”