Preclaim Discovery
In contrast with the police or prosecutor, a private attorney has very limited access to court-ordered discovery before a case is filed. Even in the limited circumstances where process is available—certain situations where evidence will disappear or witnesses may die before trial—the potential defendants are entitled to notice and a chance to object. This will put them on notice of whatever the plaintiff is trying to investigate. Plaintiffs use informal techniques for pretrial investigation as much as possible because they do not put the defendant on notice and because they are much more flexible. The attorney may conduct the investigation personally, or hire a private investigator.
The first step is to check all public records. There are many legitimate vendors of information about individuals, information that is obtained from driver’s license records, police records, property tax records, all the public information that is available if you just know where to look. Increasingly, this is all available online for anyone who pays the search fee. An unscrupulous investigator may also use contacts in various businesses to obtain private information, such as banking and phone records. The investigator will talk to potential witnesses, persons who know the defendant, employees of the defendant (unless forbidden by state law), and anyone who can provide information about the incident. If there are medical records involved, the attorney will request copies or will examine the original in person. The attorney may hire an expert to evaluate the information to determine if it supports the plaintiff’s case.