No matter how fabulous of a driver you are, there is a good chance you will be in a car accident someday. Here are my tips on how to protect yourself and your rights after the accident.
Let's start at the moment in time all the cars involved come to a stop, assuming it is a multicar accident. Check to make sure you are okay and check your passengers. If you are in need of medical attention call 911 immediately. If texting and driving is what caused the accident, switch screens for a moment and use the device as a telephone.
If you are okay, check the people in the other car(s). If they need help, call 911. If everyone is physically okay, then move the cars out of traffic if you can. If you cannot move your car, at least raise the hood and turn on your emergency lights so people approaching from behind can see that your car is disabled. Nothing complicates an accident more than late-comers plowing into your vehicle because it was in the roadway but not moving.
If there is damage to any of the cars or to anything that is not a car, the accident most likely needs to be reported since there is property damage. Call the local police department and report it. If you are out in the middle of nowhere and do not know what the local jurisdiction is, you can probably call 911 and let them know it is not an emergency but that there has been an accident you would like to report and they will pass you along to the right people.
While you are waiting for the police to show up, do not confess to anything or admit to anything. I know some of you hate to hear the lawyer say this but I can tell you from personal experience that many people will naturally say things like "I'm so sorry this happened," even when something was not their fault. They're just sorry it happened. But someone who wants to pin blame on anyone who is not them will say: "The other driver admitted it was his/her fault and even apologized to me!" In other words, avoid saying anything that implicates you and also avoid saying things that are easily misconstrued.
When the police show up, be polite, cooperative and follow the normal rules for dealing with the police during a traffic stop. At this moment, the officer has discretion on whether to issue a ticket and you'd be better off if you did not get one here.
Ask the officer how you get a copy of the police report and he or she will probably give you a card or some contact information and a time frame. "Call this number after two days and give them this incident number," or some such.
Then, call your insurance company. If you suffered a covered loss or harm, file a claim. If your car is completely undamaged and did not damage any other property you may still need to call them, not to file a claim but to let them know someone else might be filing a claim. The other driver's whiplash might flare up after they saw a lawyer's commercial during Jerry Springer. If you read your policy (who does that?!) you will probably see language that requires you to report all accidents to them promptly. If you did not report the accident and another driver files suit against you, your insurer might give you grief for not having reported the accident when it happened. They might even try to deny covering you for the claim - if they are legally allowed to.
One thing that confuses people is what the definition of property damage is. It can even be damage to your own car. Suppose you are driving home drunk and wake up just in time to see your front yard. You aim the car for the large oak tree by the drive – so as to not hit the house – and smash the car to a stop on your own property. You then stumble inside to sleep it off. Out front is your car bent around your tree, all on your own property. When the police show up, they might charge you with leaving the scene of an accident and, yes, it involved property damage. Again, a no-no.
With cell phones as ubiquitous as they are, you can now photograph an accident quite easily. I heartily recommend you do so. Take pics of your car, of the other car(s), and anything else they hit. If there is something significant about the place of the accident, see if you can document that too. Also pay attention and see if the other parties are taking pictures.
Afterwards, you will need to deal with your insurance company. Be firm. If you are entitled to anything, pursue it and follow up. Some carriers are better than others in taking care of insureds. Some will sit back and not respond to you unless you agitate them yourself. Watch out for early lowball offers. Some companies will offer you a quick lowball settlement to see if you will take it. This should not be true but it is: Many first offers from insurance companies are merely starting points for negotiation. They don't even expect you to take them up on it unless you are a patsy. Find out what you are entitled to and demand it.
The biggest point of contention is often the value of a totaled vehicle. Many insurers will find blue books or other sources that show a very low value for your vehicle, regardless of what your car was worth. I've had a client whose car was totaled within a week of purchase with less than a thousand miles on the odometer. The insurance company's first offer was a tad below the asking price of a similar vehicle – make, model, year – with 10,000 miles. When I pointed out that the vehicles were not that similar, the rep from the company said he would consider any similar ones I could find – if I could find one in my client's zip code with 700 miles on the odometer.
Should you hire an attorney after an accident? That is up to you. If you were ticketed, you might be able to get a better result fighting the ticket but many people manage to fight tickets without attorneys and do just fine. If your insurance claim is denied or you are being lowballed, an attorney can probably get you more money. But can they get you enough to make it worth hiring one? Again, this varies on a case by case basis and there is no correct answer. If you were personally injured in the accident, there is a good chance the insurance company will grossly undervalue any aspect of that claim they can. I would recommend you consult with an attorney to see what you are entitled to, even if you do not hire said attorney.
Still, follow the steps above and you will be much better off than those who don't.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.
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