Accidents Happen

Originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

Accidents Happen


As lawyers know better than anyone, every story has two sides. This can be frustrating when one is searching for the truth.

What should you do when two witnesses tell such completely opposite stories you can hardly believe they’re describing the same event? First, make sure they really are describing the same event and that you haven’t mixed up the case files.

If that’s not the problem, it’s possible the witnesses are lying. But be aware that conflicting eyewitness accounts can also result from honest differences in perception. Studies show people tend to perceive things in ways that best suit their needs.

This is especially true in relationships and automobile accidents. Since relationships would require more than 500 words to explain, we’ll focus on auto accidents.

Notice the different perceptions reflected in these insurance forms filed by two drivers involved in the same collision:

Describe How Accident Happened

Driver 1. I was minding my own business driving with my eyes glued to the road practically in slow motion when my neighbor’s death machine suddenly warped out of his driveway aimed straight at me.

Driver 2. With my head turned completely around looking for cars, I was backing out my driveway at approximately one-third of a mile per hour when my neighbor decided recklessly and without warning to launch an assault on the land speed record.

Describe Damage to Vehicles

Driver 1. My irreplaceable, vintage automobile is a total loss. Amazingly, despite the explosive force of the accident, my neighbor’s car has only a tiny dent in one fender.

Driver 2. After I pried myself loose from the twisted wreckage of my vehicle, I immediately inspected my neighbor’s rusted-out junkbox. Miraculously, the heap suffered only a minor, hardly noticeable scratch.

Describe Any Injury to Persons

Driver 1. My vertical leap and ability to enjoy life have been severely impaired. I’ve had to cancel my plans to quit my job as an accountant and become an NBA basketball player. The doctors say my case of PTCBLMSS (Post Traumatic Can’t “Be Like Mike” Stress Syndrome) is the worst they’ve ever seen. Fortunately, my neighbor was not hurt at all, except for a very slight bump on one arm.

Driver 2. It’s hard to write with my shattered elbow in this cast. I’ll submit an addendum when I get out of the hospital. As for that crock about my neighbor’s vertical leap, you should know that old Mrs. Merryweather (rest her soul) outrebounded him in last year’s neighborhood basketball tournament.

Other Comments

Driver 1. After reviewing the tragic circumstances of this horrible crash, I’m sure you will agree my neighbor is guilty as sin and does not deserve the great American privilege and responsibility of holding a driver’s license. If he doesn’t admit the accident was one hundred percent his fault, it’s only because he’s a pathological liar.

Driver 2. After you carefully investigate this terrible collision, I am confident you will come to the conclusion that I am as free from fault as a newborn baby. If my neighbor doesn’t confess all responsibility, it’s only because lying and bad driving are part of his devil-worshiping religion.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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