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Car accidents: what to do at the scene and how to maximize your insurance settlement
Driving is one of the most dangerous everyday activities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in the U.S. alone, there are more than 30,000 deaths and over 2 million injuries from motor vehicle crashes every year.
Most accidents happen so fast that there is no time to reflect or brace ourselves impact. It is only natural to experience some level of shock during and just after a car accident. A lot of people have a hard time concentrating and rationally considering what steps are necessary to take immediately after a collision.
Stay calm and observant
Immediately after a collision, most of us will get emotional, showing signs of shock, nervousness, anxiety, anger, fear or guilt, which is a normal human response to the event. It is important to try to stay calm and rational so you can better evaluate and handle the situation. Try to focus on the details, paying attention to what is happening at the scene of the accident. This is the time to take proper steps to analyze and secure evidence that will help you handle a potential claim against the other driver.
Evaluate injuries and give reasonable assistance
If you or someone else involved in a car accident is obviously injured, call 911 to request emergency assistance (if possible) and wait for help to arrive. Keep yourself and others SAFE. Turn on your hazard lights to warn other drivers about the accident. Get out of your vehicle ONLY if it's safe. If you can, set up orange cones, warning triangles, or emergency flares around the site of the crash.
If the accident is minor, meaning there are no injuries and your car is drivable, you should make a reasonable effort to move your car to a safe spot to avoid blocking traffic. Make sure you are extremely cautious - some injuries are not visible and may only be noticed hours or days later.
Report the accident
When you are involved in an accident, it’s always a good idea to call the police. They can help gather evidence, take reports, and determine liability (who’s at fault). Without police presence, it is often more difficult to determine who is at fault. This can result in getting less money and possibly increased insurance premiums. However, it the accident is fairly minor and there are no injuries, it is often difficult to get the police to come. The police will usually come in the following circumstances:
- Disabled vehicle(s) or vehicle(s) blocking traffic;
- Moderate to severe Injuries requiring hospital transport;
- Accident created unsafe road conditions;
- City property is damaged in the accident;
- Lack of agreement among the drivers as to who was at fault and requesting police assistance to evaluate the cause of the accident;
- Uncooperative driver who refuses to provide the necessary information exchange;
- Upset or angry driver(s) creating the possibility of physical altercation.
The circumstances above represent common but not an all inclusive list of reasons requiring police presence. If any of the above mentioned situations has arisen, call the police immediately and let them know why you need their help.
Even if police officers don't come to the scene, make sure you report the accident to the California DMV by filing a Form SR1 (Report of Traffic Accident Occurring in California).
Also, you may choose to file a vehicle incident report at a police station (a counter report). Sometimes your auto insurance will request this report be filed in order to process your claim.
Exchange/record driver information
You should request the other driver involved in the accident give you his/her driver license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration card. Don't forget to write down the driver's license number and expiration, full name, date of birth, address, contact phone number, his/her auto insurance company, policy number, and license plate number. Also, make sure you write down the description of the cars involved, i.e. the year, make, model, color, and damage that occurred.
If the other driver hands you the documents, try to take clear photos of all the documents provided.
If the other driver is not the registered owner of the vehicle, don't forget to get the owner's information as well.
Take notes and pictures
Even if you consider the accident a minor one, it's much easier to describe the details if you take written notes and pictures at the scene. It may help you, insurance companies, and the court to decide who is responsible. Try to take photos of the scene, including all the vehicles, damage, and the scene itself (intersection, specific position of the cars involved on the road, traffic lights and signs, any special road conditions that may have added to the collision, and any debris that have fallen to the ground). Take note of any contributory weather conditions. Also, if the injuries are self-evident and obvious, take pictures of those injuries as well.
A picture is worth a thousand words!
If there are eye witnesses, try to get their contact information in case you need help clarifying the circumstances of the crash. You should try to get their full name, address, and phone number. If a witness is not cooperating, at least try to get his/her photograph and license plate number.
It is especially important in cases where the other driver disputes liability and is not completely honest about how the accident happened. We have seen a good number of cases where other drivers tried to tweak the facts to turn the blame towards you.
Do not admit fault
Sometimes even if you think you are at fault for causing an accident, it might not be the case. That's why insurance companies repeatedly ask their insurers at the scene of an accident not to admit fault or accept blame.
Property damage to your car
You should always take your car to a mechanic/body shop that you trust. Don't fall for insurance's pleas to take your car to "their" body shop. Have the mechanic/body shop inspect your vehicle, estimate the damage, take photographs of the damage and thoroughly analyze the damage. Insist all the damaged parts are replaced with brand new ones. Avoid OEM (outside manufacturers) parts if possible. Sometimes car leases won’t accept a vehicle return using OEM replacement parts without significant charges.
Insurance companies are not your friend!
When you handle your claim with the insurance company, never ever give them your recorded statement. They are not your friend. It's a situation where "anything you say may be used against you.” Insurance companies are in the business of making money. And it's in their best interest to protect themselves and pay you as little as possible. Decades of experience and millions of claims down the line, insurance companies really know how to play their game, from flatly denying your claim to offering the lowest amount possible to settle your case. Don't let them take advantage of you! Be on top of your game. Consult an experienced personal injury attorney to help you navigate auto insurance laws and regulations to avoid their "standard" practices and ungrounded denials of coverage.
Medical treatment, following doctors' advice and avoiding gaps in treatment
Make sure you're seen by the appropriate doctors and other medical professionals. Your treating doctors should specialize in treating patients with the same types of injuries. If you need an orthopedic surgeon, don't just visit your family practitioner. Make sure you have diagnostic studies of your injuries, like x-rays, MRIs, CT scans, NCV/EMG studies, etc. Most cases will require a course of physical therapy or a chiropractic treatment. Make sure you have reputable and professional specialists working with you.
If you are injured and need medical attention, be diligent with all the appointments and follow ups. Not only because it's essential for your injuries to heal better or faster, it's also very important for your case. Insurance adjusters love to poke holes in your case if they see gaps in medical treatment. They will claim your injuries were not as serious as you are claiming or they may even hint that you were not injured at all and bringing a fraudulent insurance claim. When doctors prescribe a particular course of treatment, do yourself a favor and follow it accurately to make sure you're not hurting yourself and your claim.
Who should pay for your injuries?
The first and obvious place to look for the coverage is a driver's at fault insurance. Depending on your injuries, it may or may not cover all your claimed injuries and damages. In California, a driver is only obligated to carry 15,000/30,000 liability insurance coverage. In other words, the insurance may only cover up to $15,000 per person and up to $30,000 per accident.
What happens if your injuries are substantial and you have $50,000 in medical bills? You should look beyond the third party insurance coverage. Check if the driver and/or the owner of the vehicle (if a different person) has/have additional insurance coverage exposure that could be utilized to cover your damages. After that, check your own insurance policy. Do you have MedPay coverage? Do you have Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist coverage? Does any member of your household have Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist coverage that can be used in certain circumstances?
In circumstances where a wealthy driver is at fault, you can seek a claim against him/her if your damages are greater than the insurance policy limits.
There are different possibilities that can be available to you in terms of finding additional coverage in your case and they can’t be covered all here. Insurance laws are tricky and convoluted. Consult a personal injury professional attorney to make sure you are being compensated on all available forms of compensation.
Be aware of the time you have to file a claim
In California, there are different statutes of limitations that are applicable in personal injury types of cases. In the standard personal injury case you need to file a lawsuit within two years from the day of injury, unless you're a minor. If you miss the deadline, you lose your right to recovery. In some cases, for instance if you got hit by a county utility vehicle, you must file a claim within 6 months of the accident. It's crucial to keep the timelines in mind when working on your personal injury case. A personal injury attorney will be able to discuss the facts and legal aspects of your case and advise you of any applicable filing deadlines.
Bring an experienced personal injury attorney on board
If you haven't studied law, dealing with insurance companies on your own or representing yourself in court is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. One study shows that when you represent yourself personally, you get a settlement of 30% less than if the same case were to be handled by an attorney, and that figure takes into account all medical bills and attorney fees! If you have a really bad accident, that settlement can be many multiples of what you would get on your own. Further, a personal injury attorney takes all the time and frustration out of handling your own case. Unless you care more about insurance companies than yourself, you should protect your interests and get an experienced attorney on board to fight for your rights and put more money into your pocket.
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