California JPIA logoAccidents happen. Thorough investigation practices are essential to prevent reoccurrence and mitigate potential legal repercussions. At the 2023 California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (California JPIA) Risk Management Educational Forum, Wesierski & Zurek LLP Attorney David M. Ferrante-Alan and California JPIA Senior Risk Manager Melaina Francis discussed the importance of accident investigation and preserving evidence to defend claims.

“A comprehensive investigation framework is essential to mitigating risks effectively,” said Francis. “Investigating incidents helps uncover the root causes, allowing implementation of preventive measures and reducing the risk of future occurrences.”

The Authority recommends that investigators begin with a systematic approach, identifying basic facts and the sequence of events leading to the accident:

  • Who: Identify all involved parties, including witnesses.
  • What: Describe the event (e.g., collision, fall). Document injuries and property damage with photographs.
  • Where: Specify the exact location with details like street addresses, landmarks and building names. Note any relevant factors like potholes, uneven surfaces or deviations, and include measurements of skid marks, debris placement or other key distances.
  • When: Pinpoint the time of the incident.
  • Why: Investigate the underlying causes.

In vehicular accidents, investigators should understand that there are many aspects involved, from surveilling the scene, inspecting the vehicles, interviewing drivers, passengers and witnesses to identifying the type of crash, such as roll-over, head-on or fixed object, and the damage involved: contact and induced. Contact damage is any damage to the vehicle caused by direct contact with some object that is not part of the vehicle; induced damage is caused by another part of the same vehicle or by collision forces. Capturing evidence of vehicle and other damage and debris, whether fixed or transient, provides valuable insights into the incident’s severity and contributing factors, as do measurements and other observations.

“Proper documentation can help risk management personnel and defense counsel respond to lawsuits,” said Ferrante-Alan. “Detailed documentation and evidence preservation are crucial to strengthening your organization’s defense for incidents with legal implications.”

Photographs play a crucial role in preserving the scene and documenting relevant details. The Authority recommends capturing the entire scene, moving progressively closer, including all damage and areas that appear undamaged. This will ensure a comprehensive understanding of the incident. Certain incidents may require documentation of other elements, such as signage, sidewalks, potholes, crosswalks, signals, broken sprinkler pipes, holes, standing water and fencing.

When identifying the causes of loss, investigators analyze factors like road conditions, weather, time of day, speed, distractions and vehicle violations and consider potential causes related to procedures, safety practices, trip/fall hazards, public patron behavior and proper supervision.

“Understanding the cause of a loss is essential to implementing preventive measures and developing effective risk mitigation strategies,” said Francis. “Consider both the proximate cause and the root cause, which are the underlying factors pointing to the likelihood of the incident recurring. For example, if someone trips on a lifted sidewalk, the proximate cause is the trip, but the root cause might be a lack of sidewalk inspections.”

“Proper maintenance and inspections, along with clear policies and procedures, can assist in reducing the potential of incidents recurring. Documentation is also important: Agencies should maintain records such as design plans; written programs, policies and procedures; inspection and maintenance records; accident location history; governing body minutes; and excavation records,” said Ferrante-Alan.

About the California JPIA

Providing innovative risk management solutions for its public agency partners for more than 45 years, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority (California JPIA) is one of the largest municipal self-insurance pools in the state, with more than 125 member cities and other governmental agencies. Members actively participate in shaping the organization to provide important coverage for their operations. The California JPIA provides innovative risk management solutions through a comprehensive portfolio of programs and services, including liability, workers’ compensation, pollution, property, and earthquake coverage, as well as extensive training and loss control services. For more information, please visit the California JPIA’s website at