Aside from being traumatic, car accidents can bring about numerous legal questions, adding even more stress to an already stressful situation. For most, car accidents are a foreign concept, and the steps they need to take afterward are even more so.
Though not always the case, car accidents often require civil action before being fully resolved. Things like property damage, injuries and uninsured or underinsured motorists are just a few reasons why legal arbitration may be necessary. Fortunately, there are experienced attorneys who specialize in these types of cases and will help you to navigate the process successfully.
What to Do After an Accident
Colliding with another vehicle is a major shock to the system, to be sure, but it is imperative to stay calm. First, activate your vehicle’s hazard lights and maneuver the vehicle off the roadway if it is safe to do so. Barring a hit and run incident, the other driver will do the same. At this point you need to determine whether anyone is injured. If so, call for an ambulance immediately.
Most states require you to notify the police following an accident in most situations, especially if two or more vehicles are involved or the damage exceeds $1000, which, considering the cost of auto repairs, is most of the time. Even if you are not required to call the police, it is wise to do so anyway while your recollection of the accident is still fresh.
Oftentimes, bystanders will witness the accident and stop to assist. You should ask any witnesses to remain at the scene so that they can give a statement to the police. This will be beneficial if the other driver denies fault or gives a statement that is inconsistent with yours and those of witnesses.
Next, you must exchange information with the driver or drivers of the other vehicle or vehicles involved. Make sure to obtain the following:
- Full names of the driver or drivers
- Telephone numbers
- Insurance information, including both the name of the carrier(s) and the policy number(s)
Perhaps most importantly: Never admit fault to the other drivers, witnesses or the police. It is not uncommon for drivers involved in accidents to become irate and try to blame other drivers for an accident that they in fact caused. If this happens to you, avoid being hostile or defensive but do not apologize or in any way validate an accusation. Otherwise, you could end up legally responsible, even if the accident was not your fault.
Insurance and Medical Records
Many drivers involved in accidents they did not cause are surprised to learn that the insurance companies of at-fault drivers will send them medical release forms to sign, claiming they only need them to verify injuries. If you sign these forms, you are giving the insurance company of the at-fault driver permission to pour over your personal medical records.
It’s important to know that you are not legally obliged to sign these forms in order to receive a settlement. In fact, giving this information may lead to a reduced or contested settlement. Insurance companies are not guardian angels; they are high powered businesses worth billions of dollars. They are armed with full-time legal teams and will do everything in their power to either pay you less than they should or get out of paying you altogether. The laws protecting your medical privacy are far-reaching, and the insurance company of the at-fault driver has no legal right to them.
It is important to note that you will receive similar forms from your own insurance company. These must be signed to receive your settlement, but you have the option to limit the records your insurance company can access, keeping all medical records before the accident private. Additionally, your insurance company is not allowed to share this information with anyone, including the insurance company of the driver at fault.
What Can a Lawyer Do for You?
An attorney who specializes in automobile accidents can help you stave off the underhanded tactics used by corporate lawyers, lawyers whose main occupation is taking advantage of everyday people who are lacking in formal legal experience. An experienced accident attorney can close loopholes and pressure insurance companies to pay out faster and more fairly so that you can get on with your life. They can make it clear to the insurance company that your case is solid and that legal action on their part will just cost them more money.
If your insurance claim ends up being disputed in court, trying to handle your case by yourself is not advisable. Experienced attorneys know all the motions to file, such as discovery motions for evidence or subpoenas for witness statements, as well as proper civil law procedure; they substantially increase your odds of a favorable outcome, so going it alone is a gamble.
Property Damage Valuation
When a driver makes a mistake that damages your vehicle, the cost of your damaged property isn’t the only thing taken into account. What about your added travel expenses while your car is being repaired, the missed day of work following the accident and the work you miss to appear in court? There’s also your transportation costs for attending civil proceedings you otherwise would not have had to. A good accident attorney will consider all these things when calculating the total damages, and there are likely many expenses related to an accident that you might not think to consider.
In civil law, the court must consider the damage done to the person, not just the damage done to the property. For example, you may benefit from counseling after a traumatic accident or require personal care while you recover. Maybe someone had to babysit your children, take care of your pets. All these things are considered when determining total damages, and without an experienced attorney, you run the risk of taking a settlement far lower than the insurance company was obligated to pay.
The relationship between you and the claims adjuster representing the at-fault driver’s insurance company is an adversarial one. While your goal is to get all the money you are entitled to, the claim adjuster’s job is to settle your claim as cheaply as possible. Dealing with claims adjusters is tricky, and without a lawyer to represent you, you are stuck negotiating with them by yourself, which increases the likelihood that the claims adjuster will be able to take advantage of you.
Civil law is tricky, and just about every insurance company has attorneys who specialize in it. It is possible to handle your claim yourself, but it is smarter to level the playing field with representation of your own. Having an experienced accident attorney in your corner will help you get all the money you are entitled to and deter insurance companies from contesting your claim in court.