A thorough investigation is critical, even when the incident occurred months—or years—before you were retained.
The defendant has the upper hand.
- They have investigators, experts and lawyers on retainer.
- Their team usually goes to the scene of the incident, and gets photographs, measurements and witness statements.
- They can instruct their insured, employees and agents not to make any statements.
The plaintiff, on the other hand, probably (and understandably) was busy getting medical care, recovering, and/or grieving for their loss. It can be weeks, months, or even years before they call a lawyer.
Perhaps it is due to this inherent disadvantage, but some lawyers don’t think it worthwhile—or just don’t take the time—to fully investigate the circumstances of the case.
Over the course of my career, I have been retained very soon after an incident or crash or many years later.
What I have learned is that no matter when you are retained, it is critically important to investigate quickly and get as much information as possible.
A Plaintiff Attorney’s Investigation Checklist:
- Pick up any existing investigations. Determine what, if any, investigations have already been conducted.
- Request records. Obtain any investigations, reports, medical records—all potentially relevant documents and materials.
- Go to the scene. This is crucial. No matter how long ago the event occurred, investigate the location yourself.
- Preserve evidence. Send a spoliation letter to the offending party and/or their representatives.
- Interview any and all witnesses. Locate and interview all listed and potential witnesses. Get an investigator’s help if necessary.
- Retain a liability expert to build and refine your case theory.
Not everything on this list will be relevant for every case; but I have found it useful for major cases, especially if liability is unclear or disputed.
Using the Investigation Checklist to build your case
Coluccio Law recently concluded a case for a plumber who was severely and permanently injured on a job site.
The plumber was a subcontractor, hired by a general contractor to work on a tenant build-out project in a commercial property. Early one morning, as he walked over to the corner of the property to start his work, the floor gave out beneath him.
He plummeted through the floor, falling 40 feet into the parking garage below. Both of his feet and ankles were broken in multiple places.
I was hired to represent him about 6 weeks later.
Gathering Existing Investigations and Records
My staff immediately contacted the Washington Department of Labor and Industries to see what —if any—investigation had occurred. We learned that their “investigation” began and ended with one phone interview with the general contractor. The only information he provided was that he didn’t know why the floor had given way.
Going to the Scene
I went to the building where the plumber had been working. Not surprisingly, I was not allowed into the property.
But the plumber had been dropped through the floor into a public garage. I started there, and photographed the visible water stains and mold on the garage ceiling.
Preserving the evidence
In this case, we sent a letter to the insurance carriers requesting that any repairs be stopped, and that existing wood and debris be bagged and preserved.
Finding the Witnesses
No one had seen the plumber fall.
But, we learned that his friend had come to the scene to pick up his car. She turned out to be a valuable witness. When she came to the building, she ran into the general contractor.
He showed her where the floor had collapsed and she took photographs of the scene with her cell phone.
Since no meaningful investigation had been conducted right after the incident, I hired an investigator to assist with witness interviews. We decided that the best approach was to talk with tenants of the adjacent businesses.
We learned there had been flooding in the building over the course of several years. No known inspections or repairs had been done.
Hiring a liability expert
With the help of an expert, we were able to put together a case theory: long-term water damage had caused the floor to rot and weaken. This theory was confirmed during depositions.
The result of the investigation
The investigation work that my firm conducted became the foundation of my client’s injury claim.
We established that his injuries and damages were caused by a lack of a proper inspection protocol and maintenance program, and the failure to address flooding and water damage.
The plumber’s injury case was resolved for nearly $3 million.
Obviously, this is just one example: investigations are not always this enlightening.
As a plaintiff’s attorney, you might go to the scene of an incident or crash, and not learn anything new. You might talk to dozens of people, and not find any helpful witnesses or information.
My advice: don’t let it discourage you from making the effort.
Even if you don’t uncover anything new, a good investigation will still help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your client’s case.
Commit to investigating every case, for every client. You don’t know what you might learn.